~This essay was previously published in The Gettysburg Review (2012).
“We call contrary to nature what happens contrary to custom; nothing is anything but according to nature, whatever it may be.”
Michel de Montaigne Of a Monstrous Child
“Look at that face! Okay you kids – get close to Sam – give him a tickle – let’s get him to smile – here we go.”
The earliest memory I have of my brother, Sam, is this photograph taken by my father with a Kodak box camera in 1950. Sam sits scowling in a red Radio Flyer wagon pulled by our older brother, Bobby, over the bumpy flagstone walkway in front of our childhood home behind the nursing home in Old Mystic, Connecticut. I am standing next to the wagon, my blond pig-tails sticking out like a four year old Pippi Longstocking, with a child-sized garden rake in one hand and the other on Sam’s tiny shoulder, steadying him on his perch. This pose with me as the big sister trying to keep a grip on Sam foretold our future. His expression, with his chubby lower lip pulled up to his nose and eyebrows scrunched together under a wide-brimmed girlie sun hat, was also prophetic. There were arrows coming from his eyes towards the camera. He was eight-months old in that snapshot, but I would see that same expression many times over the thirty-nine years of his life.
From his earliest days he could aim that scowl at anyone and the word went out: “Sam’s not happy.” He sent mood telegraphs with his facial expressions. As soon as he could stand up on his little mutton chop legs, he further illustrated his discontent by taking off in all directions as fast as those mini gams could carry him. Drooping cloth diapers never slowed him down. Sam could turn ornery at a moment’s notice and demonstrate demon behavior – something that I aspired to as a child but assumed I could never get away with.
Our parents battled for control over Sam’s moods and meanderings. Many a family outing ended with my mother’s frantic cry: “Where’s Sam?” and the alarm went up: “Sam’s taken off again!” We would all go to our lookout points. Even at a picnic table in a park in an open clearing with ten pairs of eyes looking left and right, he could vaporize.
He would never have his picture taken with Santa Claus at the G. Fox & Co. department store, in Hartford, Connecticut, a yearly tradition for the rest of us. He was already on the lam as soon as we entered the store. Each year, as my older brother and I waited like automatons to sit on Santa’s lap, standing on fake snow in the line of children that snaked through Frosty Village and the elves’ toyshop, Sam had already departed for the luggage department or housewares or men’s clothing with our parents in pursuit, my father panting in his wool suit, overcoat and felt hat, my mother slipping and sliding in her high heels and taffeta dress with her coat over her arm – both wearing a look of alarm. Sam could do that to adults. They never knew what he was going to do even though he seemed to do the same thing, over and over.
“What ails that child?” said my grandmother, “he just goes off on a toot whenever he wants. He takes after Grandfather Sam. He couldn’t stay t’ home either. Shouldn’t have named him after him.”
This knack at physical disappearance raised conversations within the family both about the origins of Sam’s behavior and/or the reinforcement of such propensities. Was it nature or nurture? “How did he get like this?” they wondered.
My father: “Sam needs a good hiding.”
My grandmother and mother, in unison: “Don’t you dare touch that child.”