The Red Dress with the Chocolate Swath
It was the night of the Stonington Opera Party, held annually in a large house on the village square; guests were to don formal attire, prepare an aria, and bring a dish.
Getting ready is always a challenge. Matching shoes, earrings, hair . . . not to mention learning the aria. I wore my long red dress with the wrap—for both modesty and dash. I had found my earrings—both of them!—and my red pumps. I had chosen to sing Gershwin, not Italian. But the detail that yearly confounds me is the dish. I cannot sing an aria and do a salmon entrée. The host, who organizes the event and assigns the program and the meal, gently advised ice cream and, in a burst of prideful folly, I had made chocolate sauce.
I arrived late and breathless, laden with music, purse, Häagen-Dazs in an ice-filled bowl, and the chocolate sauce, warm, in another bowl covered with waxed paper.
Somehow, the door did not get answered, and, as I reached to knock more loudly, something tilted—something warm. Just then the door was opened and I stepped inside, realizing that, lo, I was covered, bosom to pumps, in chocolate sauce.
The party was underway—several fireplaces ablaze and soft conversations. Men in cummerbunds and women in shimmery gowns. Kisses and greetings. Phrases rehearsed sotto voce. It was still the cocktail hour.
The host is a superb gentleman. I would dash home and change before singing, I told him, but he was firm: “Do not go home. The program is about to start.”
The host’s wife graciously applied a butter knife and wet sponge, but I could not sing my aria in a chocolate-covered dress that was now completely wet.
Who ya gonna call? Who else?
I called my brother. “Curtiss, I have an emergency—I need your help.” Of course, he assumed I was on the side of the highway.
“Where are you and are you safe?”
“I’m at the Opera Party and my dress is covered in chocolate. Could you bring me the coral-pink dress that’s in the garment bag? Oh, and could you bring the jacket, too, the pink one?”
“Well, alright, if I can find it.”
“The big house with the widow’s walk. I’ll meet you in front.”
Soon enough, my brother’s cell phone number appeared and I dashed down the front steps like Cinderella leaving the ball. He was standing on the sidewalk beside his truck.
My brother Curtiss is tall and lean, usually dressed in mended jeans. He has retired from the Merchant Marine and from land surveying. He is married with two grown daughters. He plays guitar and mandolin, and at a certain turn in the song, races with nimble fingers, playing lead. He writes songs, too: subtle, poetic, with unexpected images and rhymes. One of my favorites describes the funeral of our father’s friend, recorded with older jazz musicians: “You Can’t Keep a Good Man Down.”
“Just hop in,” he said. I got into the cab of the truck and squirmed out of the red dress and into the pink one. Several jackets in varying shades of rose and coral were flung in the back seat. My brother had not known which one I meant, so he brought them all.
“Yes. I’m okay. Thank you. I really appreciate your help.” How many times over the years have I said this?
“Don’t worry about it.”
My brother had just saved the day, as he is in the habit of doing.
Over the years, Curtiss has extricated me from one wet, messy situation or another: radiators that spewed water, a basement that flooded, antifreeze that found its way to the driver’s seat, chocolate sauce. In Carmel, California, when we were children, the five of us siblings sported and ran in the wind and sun. Curtiss, then twelve, had a broken arm. I stepped to cross what seemed a shallow rivulet and was suddenly plunged into greenish depths. Somehow, his arm in a cast, Curtiss fished me out, and I was brought to the surface, gasping and wet.
As I reflect on these instances—a review of Curtiss coming to the rescue—I am grateful. Though we live in a fallen world, help is near. That help has come in many forms for me, but it is often in my brother, Curtiss Joseph.
When our father was in his eighties, he was diagnosed with advanced Parkinson’s. He was losing his balance, his speech, his handwriting, and the expression in his face. He wanted still to be gregarious, but could no longer be. He needed care and we took care of him. All of us pitched in, but I lived in his house, and Curtiss was close by.
Taking care of my father was a big undertaking, which I did not fully realize until after he died. When my father would fall, I would hear the thump. By reflex, I sprang up and into my shoes, and flew down the stairs. Of course, I called my brother. If my father were unconscious, I would call 911 first.
“He’s on the floor. Can you come?”
“He’ll be right there, Cecile,” my sister-in-law would say in a haze of sleep, and he was. He was always right there.
A Coming Shortage?
You may be wondering where I am going with all of this, but the question does press itself upon me: Whither brothers? How does a single woman manage without a brother? And where does a brother come from but in a family? Sometimes, when I listen to young women recounting their experiences at the hands of ill-behaved men, I wonder where their brothers are. As I observe the lived experience of single women, and the attitude toward large families, I begin to fear that we may be facing a growing shortage of brothers.
Brothers and sisters are there all around you as you grow up. They are simply a given, always present, nestled close. Next to you in the car, and below you in the bunk bed, they fill the space around you, shoving, snuggling, arguing, laughing. Witnesses, they remember it all: the identifying sound of our mother’s bracelets heard in the grocery store; our father with his cigar and newspapers, the blue smoke settling in the living room as he reads. Brothers and sisters share a mental landscape of sounds and phrases and stories. When they sing, their voices blend. They share a genetic inheritance, and yet each is distinct from the rest. In each face, the eyes are familiar: like your own, and not like your own. One looks at the face of a brother or sister and sees a lifetime. We were five, fair-skinned and freckled, often sunburned. But a family of five was not a large family when were children. Other families had six and seven. The Ferronis had ten. What changed?
I have observed that in contemporary society young people expect to schedule each child. Children are admitted only when certain gains have been made, and goals have been reached. The couple has a long period of living together: working, traveling, going out to dinner. And then there is a wedding. Along with focus on work, there are lattes and robust, healthy dogs. It is only after some deliberation that a child arrives. When the child does come, he or she has the benefit of car seats and sunscreen, of bike helmets and reading intervention and allergy testing, but maybe not of siblings.
It wasn’t like that a generation or two ago. I cannot imagine my parents planning any of us. The five children (plus one miscarried, rarely mentioned) just came—messy and noisy, two to a bed, singing and playing. One had a birth defect and was baptized in the wee hours, not expected to live. Another had a fiery temperament and was sent to learn classical Spanish dance (castanets!) and flamenco. There was the aforementioned Curtiss, generous and gentle, whom my mother taught to play the guitar. Another, the fourth, was as beautiful as a child could be and sweet-tempered, always a peacemaker. The weather stayed perfect when she was born, said my mother, and the baby always smiled. The fifth was different still: a sturdy little tow-head who would recount in detail each play of his Little League baseball game, though the team lost every game.
A Child Learns from Brothers and Sisters. Don’t Say, “Not Yet.”
If you pause and wait, and say “Not now,” you are likely to miss someone. The child who comes is not the one you may have had earlier. Maybe your daughter has missed having a sister. Certainly, Curtiss was grateful that the fifth was a boy. Why is it considered too much to have both the child now and the child who may follow? Why is it not understood that, while parental resources may be finite, other sources of love and guidance and affirmation are there in the presence of brothers and sisters? Brothers and sisters help a child grow up. Siblings learn to share; they learn to wait, to have patience, and to accept the differences among sets of people.
Brothers and sisters interrupt each other and argue, sometimes well into adulthood. Yet, brothers and sisters are also keen in one another’s defense. They continue to love one another, even when there is every reason not to. One cannot not love one’s brothers and sisters. They are a given—given by God.
“Let the little children come to Me.” We used to. Why don’t we anymore?