He was, without exaggeration, the perfect kid to have at the tail end of a very long sibling parade.
If you were getting ready to head off in the car, he would always ask the same question: “Can I go?”
If you said no, he’d smile and say, “Oh. Okay.”
If you said yes, he’d smile and say, “Oh. Okay.”
And, either way, it really was okay.
Even today, in all but the most vexing of situations, the words that we used to use to define the old personality type that was called phlegmatic fit him pretty well.
He really is “thoughtful, reasonable, calm, patient, caring, and tolerant.”1
And he is my brother.
My baby brother.
My brother Bill.
He was named after our mother’s oldest brother, though my German-born father insisted on the formal William rather than the Southern U.S. version my uncle bore through life — Billy. But he was always called Billy, or Bill, or even — and to this day still by some of our aunts and uncles — Little Bill, to distinguish him from our uncle.
And, of course, as he’s gotten older, he’s sometimes been called Mr. Bill.
And it’s that “getting older” part that’s the issue. He is, you see, oh yes he is reaching one of those milestones in less than 48 hours.
There’s no way to describe Bill except as a study in contrasts.
He is both one of the most gentle men I have ever known… and one who was totally successful in a 20-year career as a United States Marine Corps officer.
He is a man who wore leathers and rode a motorcycle… and one who, without the slightest self-consciousness, allowed the tears to run down his face in a moment of total bliss as he cradled his sleeping newborn son.
That last one will forever be one of my most enduring memories of this brother. I flew out to California when his son, my nephew Dennis, was about 10 days old and sat quietly watching this scene. But despite its power, I can’t think of this one memory without thinking of all the other memories I have of Bill over all the years of his life.
How he somehow learned the words to the song “Little Bird, Little Bird” from the musical Man of La Mancha.2 It still makes me giggle to remember the raunchy tone of this suggestive taunting tune being belted out by a two-year-old boy.
How our mother couldn’t tolerate the idea of her last two sons — born in June and October some 16 months apart — being two years apart in school, since Warren had been old enough to start kindergarten at age 5 with his June birthday, but Bill would have had to wait until he was almost six. So — to the dismay, I’m sure, of future genealogists — she fudged his birth certificate to make him look just a few days older so he could start school only a year behind his brother.
How Bill put up with being teased by Warren, who wasn’t any bigger than Bill was despite being 16 months older. And put up with it. And put up with it. Until the day when he’d finally had enough and hauled off and let Warren have it right in the kisser. How both of the boys were totally startled when — instead of them being separated and reprimanded — the whole family broke into laughter and applause.
How Bill couldn’t quite get the hang of pronouncing the letter R, and so got the opportunity to charm years worth of school speech therapists as well as teachers.
How he handled, with grace and style, being dragged from his birthplace of New Jersey to Texas and then to Virginia as our parents’ marriage disintegrated and finally ended when he wasn’t yet 10. How he handled the back-and-forth visits, and never once even hinted at the pain the disruption was causing him.
How he excelled in school, getting himself into college and then into the Marine Corps’ special program for future officers that paid his way through Georgia Tech. How he later picked up a master’s degree at the Naval Postgraduate School.
How he has grown into such a good and decent man. How he adores — and is adored by — his sons. How, through thick and thin, he and their mother have been first and foremost and forever friends.
How he has always been there, for each of us, whenever we have needed him. Being there, with our brother Fred, when our mother drew her last breath. Being there to hold my hand as we sat in the waiting room while our much-loved sister had open heart surgery (and is doing fine today, thank you for asking). Being there as the strong arm for a beloved aunt to lean on at the funeral of her niece, our cousin.
And how, on Monday… just two days from today … less than 48 hours away … the little brat will turn 50.3
Oh, no, Mr. Bill!
I have no idea how that can possibly have happened.
No clue where those 50 years have gone.
I can’t be old enough to have a baby brother who’s 50.
He can’t be old enough for AARP.
Not that it bothers him, I’m sure. You can ask him yourself, if you’d like.
But I can guarantee you what he’d say.
He’d smile and say, “Oh. Okay.”
And, of course, it really is okay.
Happy 50th, Bill.
- Wikipedia (http://www.wikipedia.com), “Four temperaments,” rev. 22 Sep 2014. ↩
- See “Little Bird, Little Bird,” SongFacts (http://www.songfacts.com/ : accessed 3 Oct 2014). ↩
- Yes, that really does mean that my oldest brother and my youngest brother are 20 years apart in age. See Judy G. Russell, “Finding Evan,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 27 Sep 2014 (http://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : accessed 4 Oct 2014). Twenty years and 10 days to be exact. Same father, different mothers, so it’s not quite as bad as it may seem. ↩