Sometimes I Felt Like A Brotherless Child

Dan Kempner 
MDI Contributor

My wife runs a little school in our house, for teaching English to Vietnamese children. This means that twice a week, for four hours, my house becomes a war zone of sorts. The couch is a trampoline, rooms are hide-and-seek havens. The little girls, my own daughter among them, play hard, streaking the narrow lanes between adults and furniture like proverbial quicksilver.

Photo by Tajerine [via Twenty20 royalty free]

But the boys … that’s another matter. It’s as though the Incredible Hulk visited them in vitro and whispered, “Smash!” They are less like quicksilver and more like legged sledgehammers, and any object that enters their palm must, by definition, be a projectile. I was one of those boys once, with no sense of my own size or strength, and my parents despaired for any breakable object.

Liz Kempner, my sister, circa 1966

I had an older sister growing up, one who loved me greatly in spite of the occasional torture visited by all older siblings on younger ones. She and I were close, but she did not share the same sensibilities, nor the love of a perfectly thrown spiral coming down in the arms of a comrade running a pattern at full speed. Still, I had her, my two fine parents, and many friends, so I felt no lack. Yet I now realize there was one lack: I had no brother.

Yours Truly circa 1966, Chicago

Scroll forward a few decades to a store in Newton, Massachusetts. I was working some shifts cutting up the world’s finest cheeses at a Whole Foods Market there, and a man doing the same seemed to always be talking about something interesting. At least, interesting to me. Did you hear the way that person described a certain flavor? What is it about a woman’s ankle that can be so incredibly erotic? Why do we care whether the Red Sox win or not, what is that about? Hey, I’ve been reading a really cool book, want to hear about it?

And pretty soon it was, “Hey, Jonesy, what’s this men’s team you’re always talking about?”

I went to what he called a breakfast meeting on a Saturday morning, found the level of discourse fascinating, the wide-ranging conversation over pancakes and spuds lively and masculine.


A Monday night meeting followed, at which I learned there was something bigger going on, an organization, some “weekend” I would have to “do,” dues to be paid.

I confronted Jonesy at work as we walked to his car and, as he opened the door, I pulled him around and said, “Listen Jones, here’s what I need to know. Did you drag me there to fill some sort of quota? Or is this real between you and me? In other words, if I don’t go back, if I never go to a meeting again, are we still going to be friends?”

“Yes. Of course,” he said casually.

Another decade on, I have slowly realized the possibilities of what a brother is, what he means.

We are both writers, who share the writerly sense of language, explore the things it can do, what we can make it do. Yet, like an older brother, he got there first while I helped with the edits.

We’re both fans of other authors, though he reads omnivorously while I nibble around the edges. We both love poets and their works, though he reads it all, and I read what he passes down to me. He starts a gratitude practice, and the conversation around it are so rich that soon, so do I.

Our political sensibilities are the same, our approach to relationships, our wives. We both had a religious period and we’ve moved well beyond that, though we both are informed by what we learned and appreciate the beauty, pageantry and occasional truths we found.

Now that we live far apart our time is often reduced to writing collaboration: you edit mine; I’ll edit yours. We are brutal critics – or at least I am – and proud cheerleaders.

We came to this late. There were no balls thumping into gloves, no indoor war zones or broken dishes, no swapping first drags of cigarettes or talking about our girlfriends. I still don’t know what that is like.

But this is enough. I am no longer brotherless.

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