BY Clarence Brown
American Reporter Correspondent
February 11, 2004
NOTE TO A NIECE
SEATTLE, Wash. -- Dear Julie: Here's the note you asked me to send for your father's birthday festivities.
I have two brothers, as you may have heard. God thought I had done such a lousy job of being a big brother in the first case that He'd give me one more chance. And that was it!
The problem was as usual age. I was 3 years old when Mike was born, and no one had had the common decency to warn me that someone new was going to pop onto the scene and start playing with my toys and treating my parents as if they were his!
Whoever dubbed this sibling rivalry was a master of euphemism. What it is is trench warfare, taking no prisoners.
By the time your father Doug was born I was a mature and worldly 10-year-old. I even knew he was on the way. I even knew how exactly he had got the initial push toward existence. Not that my father had considered me mature enough for "the talk,"-I'm not sure that he ever thought me mature enough, but he somehow mumbled through it when I, at the age of 16, was trying hard to keep a straight face.
But the librarian at the Carnegie Free Library, where I spent every free minute of my time, gave me books that I dared not bring home when I asked her for references to "conception, human." She made me sign a paper that I was over 21. I asked her over 21 what? She said, Read, Enjoy, and Shut up ... and we never had this conversation.
Mother had been horrified enough when I came home from that same library with William James' "Varieties of Religious Experience" ("You take that right back, Clarence Junior - there is only one variety!"), so I pretty much knew better than to bring into our house textbooks with pictures of things with little whipping tails trying to get the attention of a squishy balloon-like thing. The whole thing lacked the Southern Baptist slant on life.
Anyhow, Doug appeared, and I liked him from day one. My problem with Mike was that I competed with him for my parents. With Doug, I competed with my parents for HIM. Whatever the textbooks said, I considered him MY little boy, though I have reconciled myself to the impossibility of this being the actual case.
I did not resent it when Doug inherited my hired playmate, Harold Mattison. This needs explaining. In my day, one had a black nurse up to about the age of four. Then a little black boy senior enough to be both responsible and agreeable to playing childish games was appointed as one's guardian.
In His infinite mercy, God sent me Harold. I thought he was a god. He was taller, stronger, and better looking than me, and he could throw a baseball beyond my field of vision. I idolized him, and few of those who write so glibly about segregation in the South of those days are aware of the intense individual love that bound certain white and black kids together.
By the time Doug came along, Harold, now some seven feet tall, was still around, though no longer my official playmate. It is an indelible picture: the immensely tall black teenager holding the hand of a tot, Doug, whose feet were spinning out of control for every languid step of his companion.
I suppose I am trying to unravel the mystery of my loving Doug both as a kid brother and as a kid, period.
But there you are. Happy birthday, Doug.
AR Correspondent Clarence Brown is a cartoonist, writer, and Professor Emeritus of Comparative Literature at Princeton University.