In little boys the line between reality and fantasy is a fine one. Santa is real, magic is possible, and mom and dad are the strongest, best, and most wonderful people in the world. In your imagination, fictional characters walk the streets and the greatest of them all, Superman, can really fly.
Day-to-day life in a home of three boys is, however, more complicated. In the home I grew up in with my brothers Ed and Jack, the magic — most of it, that is — quickly wore off.
Dad was usually working one of his multiple jobs and mom was overmatched by raising all of us, to some extent, on her own. Sibling rivalry was inevitable. We all wanted more time and attention and a different kind of time and attention.
From dad, a focus on us as individuals and our specific interests and talents would have been welcome, instead of the more distracted and generic love that came from a man who was always about to leave for work, at work, just back from work, or worried about work and the business of making a living. As a child of the Great Depression, he designed his life to prevent a “Second Coming” of the economic hardship he’d endured in the 1930s.
Mom’s life had no such organizing principle to streamline and normalize it. Perhaps as a result, her internal turmoil wasn’t contained. Relating to her was a tightrope walk.
As challenging as dad’s early life was, mom’s was infinitely more difficult. Her father, a charming bon vivant, was alcoholic. Meanwhile, her mother was suspicious, hard of hearing, and cycled between vicious criticism of her children and a claustrophobic, suffocating love of them. Perhaps worst of all, the family’s frank poverty allowed my mother only enough money for a candy bar at lunch. Before long, malnutrition made her an easy target for tuberculosis, while the family’s economic desperation and social chaos robbed her of any sense of value other than her physical beauty.
Although mom would have rejected the idea, her dad and mine almost certainly made her feel abandoned, even as different as they were. She was in second place with both. To grandpa, it was drunken outings that he preferred; to dad, it was work away from home. And the turmoil of a childhood household with lots of little kids and an ill-equipped mother at the helm was exactly where she found herself again, this time assigned the role her mother had played years before.
The frustration and anger boiled over at her children rather than her parents or her husband. Copying her mother, my mom would complain about each of her children to the others. Comparisons occurred regularly. “Why aren’t you more like ______.” We all heard this and thought we were each the least favorite child because we didn’t know that it was a game without winners. What you did well didn’t count for nearly so much as what you didn’t or did wrong.
Jealousy grew in this way, with each boy thinking the other was getting a better deal. But my mother could also be extraordinarily warm, your fiercest defender against the outside world, and heartbreakingly sad, as she struggled with her own parental and sibling relationships. Only later did I realize I probably got the best of both of my folks, their only child for most of my preschool years.
As the oldest child, I was expected to be more mature than they were. My job was to take some pressure off my parents, and to some degree, be a protector of Ed and Jack.
Eddie was an active, eager, extremely smart little guy, while Jack was an especially loveable child, as huggable as could be. Like all younger brothers (Ed is four years my junior and one year older than Jack), Eddie wanted my time and companionship; perhaps, all the more, because of dad’s absences and Ed’s quick displacement by Jack as the youngest. But, of course, big brothers don’t have the time or don’t want to give it, even as much as little brothers want it and need it. I’m sure my rejection hurt him.
Doubtless, our temperamental differences made things harder. I was scholarly and reserved, carrying the family banner of school performance as far as it would take me. He was active and devilish, the kid who rushed in and sometimes made a mess. We didn’t always get along.
In almost any life there are things you wish you could go back and do over, put right; take what you have learned the hard way and be nicer retrospectively. Yes, I was a kid, even if older than he, and certainly didn’t know down from up. Still, I wish I’d been a better older brother.
Yet there were moments when I did the right thing. Although I was no fighter, I took on our next door neighbor when that boy, slightly older than I, tried to push Ed around. I didn’t win the fist fight, but the point was made that my brother wasn’t fair game. And my mother said that the other kid had a hard time combing his hair for a few days, at the place on the side of his head that I landed my most forceful blow. A few years later and a similar incident happened when an older boy from the local parochial school took on Eddie. This time I wound up on my back. As I said, I was not a great pugilist.
Encounters like this often happened in the alley, as did many activities that were much more fun. In playing games there you could tap your imagination and take a role home didn’t offer. You might be a baseball hero, emulating Ernie Banks or Billy Williams, seeing yourself as the Superboy that parental judgment didn’t recognize. Approval at home might be in short supply, but as Ernie or Billy or Clark Kent’s alter ego there would be no end of cheering for you. And so you escaped from home’s gravity to a fantasy the alley permitted where, like Superboy and Superman, you could fly.
When we were all pretty small, Superman, starring George Reeves, was one of the most popular American TV shows. Reeves (not the late Christopher Reeve, who took the Superman role in the movies) was a handsome, powerfully built hero who every little boy wanted to be like. And with that, “to fight for truth, justice, and the American way” as the idea was understood in the 1950s. Thus, TV provided an iconic image even more potent than the comic books we read, while the alley gave you a playing field to enact whatever heroism might come to mind.
But alley’s also held physical threats rather than the emotional ones inside the house. To retrieve an errant batted ball, you climbed the gutter downspout up to a flat-topped garage. A line-drive might explode a garage door glass window. And if you tripped, the concrete pavement could make for a painful landing and broken teeth. Quite a bit different from the sanitized and supervised public spaces where kids play today and not as safe as they are.
It was in the alley that Eddie showed some particular compassion for me. I was in the seventh grade. The game was a two vs. two touch football contest. In trying to elude a tag I dodged to the right — full-steam into a jutting garage abutment. The right side of my head made the crunching contact. I knew instantly that I was badly hurt. I dropped the ball and walked the few steps home.
Eight-year-old Ed saw me — saw what I’d done to my ballooning forehead and my shutting but blood-shot right eye — and burst into tears.
As Ed and Jack got older we played games away from home, mostly in summer softball leagues in various parks in Chicago and Evanston. Ed was a fine first baseman and a power hitter who once hit three home runs in a single contest. Jack, the best athlete among us, was a gifted, strong-armed, left-handed outfielder; fleet afoot and capable of slashing line-drives to all fields. He went on to become an award-winning amateur body builder and a successful business man. These were the guys you wanted on your side.
But not everything in Ed’s life came as easily as hitting a long ball. School was a hard place despite Ed’s intellectual gifts. The rules chaffed. Trouble beckoned. The wrong friends, the kind your folks tell you not to hang around with, weren’t helpful. Some of them would, much later, die of their own recklessness. Accidents, suicide, murder, drugs? In a wild crowd, everything is possible.
For a time, Ed’s life was like a coin in the air. Heads or tails? Who knew?
Finding your way is rarely easy and it wasn’t for Eddie. But Ed managed — through intellect, hard work, and courage — to shed the bad influences and create a wonderful business as a home remodeler of artistic sensibility and refined craft. He is a devoted husband and father; a smart, generous, and decent man who you still want on your side.
And somehow, as sad as it was, the death of our parents meant an escape from the adult version of the crazy-making sibling animosity that my mom never fully stopped fomenting. The death of one’s parents doesn’t always result in closer sibling relationships, what with fighting over estates and bequests. But in our family everyone played fair and it made reconciliation easier.
Ed, Jack, and I figured out that being friends, not just brothers, was something desperately important. That grudges, regardless of the cause, needed to be set aside. That apologies needed to be made. That love, after all, matters more than just about anything. That all the things that bind you — your memories of your folks, your time together growing up in the same home, a shared blood-line, and a desire to live by the Golden Rule — are more important than your differences.
But, as I said before, there were a few early moments when differences didn’t matter and brotherhood did, a harbinger of what was to come. One last childhood memory, then, to reinforce the point that just occasionally we did the right thing as kids. It was back when Ed was still young enough to confuse reality and fantasy. Probably even before he started school.
What am I getting at?
A time when Ed thought Superman actually could fly!
One afternoon, while I was playing in the backyard, Ed was indoors watching Superman. And when the program ended, he decided that it was a really great day for a solo flight. Before long he’d tied a white towel around his neck as a makeshift cape, opened the window facing the backyard, and got out on the ledge that was perhaps 12 feet off the ground, preparing for launch.
By the time I noticed him, Ed was flexing his knees the way Superman did just before take-off. I yelled for him to stop, and for the time being he hesitated. But how to get him turned around and back into the house? He could easily fall trying to make that maneuver. And, if I went back upstairs to pull him inside, there was every chance he would take the opportunity for his inaugural flight after all.
A sewer manhole cover lay just below the window, the place where Eddie would land, not on the more forgiving grass of the backyard. I didn’t know where my mother was and efforts to call out to her weren’t getting her attention. No one else was around.
There was only one thing to do.
I got underneath the window and asked Ed to jump into my arms. I braced myself. He didn’t take much persuasion.
“Ooof,” I groaned as his small body hit my chest and my arms. He didn’t exactly float down. I staggered, but didn’t fall. No one got hurt; no brain damage or broken bones on either side. No trip to the ER at Swedish Covenant Hospital, a place where Ed, Jack, and I all did more than a little time in those years.
In saving another you sometimes save yourself, find the best in yourself — find something that is important to both of you. And wind up in each others’ arms, where you belong. It just took a few more decades to get back to that spot, unfortunately.
A brother who became a friend. Someone you can depend on. A man whose career remodeling things and fixing things is a metaphor for what all three Stein boys did with our lives: repair and recreate ourselves, as many people have to do, but most don’t do nearly so well as Eddie.
A man who learned that a cape was not required to make his spirit soar.
A super man.
Happy Birthday, Eddie.
The images, in order, beginning with the second image: Ed Stein hitting a double in a softball game many years ago; Jack Stein at a body building competition in recent years; Stamp Day For Superman featuring George Reeves, 1954, from a U.S. Treasury Film; and Ed Stein and the author. All but the family photos are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.