The Harwood Brothers
Anita Kline, Center for the Study of Religion
Princeton Writes Prize
2019-2020 Staff Essay Contest
There were Wilbur and Orville, Frank and Jesse, Cain and Abel. Then came Merritt and David; and I, by the grace of all things holy, exist between them.
There is a fine-tuned tension that holds my two brothers and me taut. We are a triangle, a circle with sharp edges. We cleave. We have cleaved. We have hewn, smote, sundered. Nonetheless, and in that historical tension after nearly seventy years together and apart, I am here today to praise them—in the midst of, I quickly stress, their living with me in my tiny home for three weeks straight.
In an enormous act of kindness, they are in New Jersey from their own homes two and three thousand miles away to give my townhouse a new kitchen. It was their idea.
Our history from the beginning is full of construction and demolition. There was the time Brother Merritt tossed our backyard rope swing with his mighty eight-year-old strength just as Baby Brother David stepped in front of its path: whack, wooden seat to forehead, blood spewing, parents running. He always manages to get their attention, I remember thinking, feverish with six-year-old envy. See Father and Mother run. Run, run, run.
The first time I had felt that green, itchy heat was at David’s birth, when we older children in the hospital parking lot peered at him from the backseat of our 1954 sedan to take him home. An overrated arrival, I thought, while being denied a glimpse of this highly veiled package in my mother’s arms.
As time passed, though, I discovered I didn’t mind finding David tucking his hand into mine, following me everywhere, with confident assumption that he would be welcome. In turn, I followed Merritt, eager to learn whatever he was learning. As children of the 1950s, we expected to entertain ourselves, discover limitations by bumping up against their rough edges, turning to our elders only when slivers or wounds were too big to handle on our own. When our parents, themselves feverish with both wanderlust and evangelical Christian zeal, moved us two thousand miles from our initial home base, we three turned any competition we had directed at each other into tight alliance as we protected our trio in uncharted lands.
We learned to maneuver the different dialects of church and woods, calculating how to look under real and metaphorical fallen logs and then put them back as if we hadn’t really been changed by what we saw. There always seemed to be a bend, a curve, to navigate in our family rivers.
When I moved far away from my brothers after college, declaring myself to be fiercely independent and adding such words as “hegemony” and “Weberian” to my vocabulary, the two brothers continued to build boats together, raze porches, raise pergolas, treehouses, children, grandchildren. They used “plinth” and “worm drive” and knew all the meanings of the word “purchase.” They climbed mountains. Shared books. Detoured politics. Built some nearly impenetrable fences. But when family camping trips were proposed, we all found each other, and fences temporarily came down. While I, at my house, was adept at working with duct tape and baling wire, the brothers, around the reunion campfires, offered me more sound repair advice. When David moved a thousand miles east of Merritt on to his own forty acres of meadow and mountain, Merritt followed to help reinforce outbuilding doorways, clean out old brush and timber and the yurt out back. They both mended fences. They left the bear den alone.
It was on David’s front porch, while tomatoes grew and chickens pecked and thunder hit the mountaintops, that the brothers hatched their plan to fly to me with forty pounds of tools each to construct a new New Jersey kitchen. They knew I would enjoy demolishing the old one to prepare for their arrival.
For the past two weeks, Merritt and his Barbara, from blustery Northwest, David and his Pam, from their snow-packed West, have maneuvered my home full of crates, dust, rented tools, dust, painting equipment, dust, lumber, lumbar ointment, favorite bourbon and scotch waiting in the corner. Most of the shouting has been at Alexa, over the din of drills, to request music from Ella, Brahms, The Band, Frank, the Beatles, Pete Seeger, Willie Nelson.
We have hooted over old family stories, unboxed dim childhood memories, gushed about how good a frozen meal on a paper plate tastes fresh from the microwave, which is now in the dining room. Arguments are over the sticking power of rival bandage brands. We have howled with the joy of waking up in the same house each morning, uninterrupted for nearly a month, offering bear hugs and noogies. We have agreed five-to-zero on flooring tiles and wine choices. Our far-flung adult children have taken turns FaceTiming or phoning us to find out how, and if, we are managing together. The generations are getting to know each other more intimately and to see the antics of the newest of the grandchildren.
“Full New Jersey Moon” was the caption of one photo sent westward.
“There’s only one moon,” a grandson replied, possibly unaware of the wisdom he had invoked.
So, I thank them, my brothers, for a gift of many dimensions, for uniting us all again under the pull of the moon.
Their kindness has filled me and has spilled over to amaze, also, the plumber, the six a.m. and eight p.m. workers at the hardware stores, the woman at the bakery, my neighbors (bless their hearts, as the saws roar on Sunday mornings). Our children have witnessed generosity. Our children’s children will know that a gift like Merritt’s and David’s, of time and endurance, rich humor and patience, is both a fine and an expected gauge to hold up in their own lives, to measure what it is to be a full and compassionate brother, neighbor, human being, in our common experience of being human together.