My oldest brother, Jeff, ran away from home the first time when I was probably only 7 or 8 years old. He played guitar in a band and he played music in his room all the time. I don’t have great recollection of specific memories of my older brother at that age. What I have instead is a sense of comfort, awe, longing, and a sense that he was connected to something greater going on in the world that I was unable to comprehend fully.
Our house had two bedrooms on the second floor, one of which was intended to be the master bedroom boasting three walk-in closets and a bathroom. But at that age, my older sister and I were sharing the larger bedroom and Jeff had the room across the hall. I’m guessing the year was about 1967 or 68. My brother’s room had peace signs and pictures of the Beatles from the Let It Be album hanging on the walls.
What I remember most prior to his departure is going to sleep at night to the sound of his music. Whether he was playing guitar himself or playing records, there was always music playing at night as I went to sleep. Then one day he was gone. And the music stopped. And I couldn’t get to sleep without it.
I was very young. I had not experienced a loss. My father’s parents had both died by that time, but they did not live nearby and I had not been close to either of them.
And with 8 years between us, it’s not as if I was very close to my older brother. But when he left, I felt a big empty space that eventually became filled with longing.
Other memories around that time are more like sense memories than actual events.
I have a vague memory of my parents’ dread as they waited for Jeff’s draft number, and the slight sense of relief as they explained after receiving it that they had reason to believe he would be safe. I can remember that the older boy who lived across the street was drafted and how the news came back that he had refused to carry a gun in boot camp and so was told to go home. I remember thinking, well if that’s all you have to do to get out of going to war, that doesn’t seem too bad. I had no notion of what a dishonorable discharge might mean.
I began to romanticize the journey my brother must be on. I was drawn to any movie that romanticized the hippie way of life or running away from home or a road trip. Even if the story didn’t intend to romanticize the idea, I could look past a story of a troubled teen addicted to downers and see, instead, a triumphant story of a young person striking out on her own to discover the world on her own terms.
Meanwhile, my brother’s journey was far less glamorous than I let myself believe. Struggling with his own demons, and after a requisite west coast hitch-hiking journey, he settled down on “The Farm,” a born-again Christian community not far from our house run by a very kind man with five beautiful dark-haired daughters. Having accepted Jesus Christ as his savior, much to my mother’s dismay, he finished high school, continued playing music and went about his new life.
Lucky for me, he still looked like a hippie, with long scraggly hair and tunics, so I could continue to romanticize the role I had cast for him upon his departure. And I filled the empty space he left with a sense of longing—longing for adventure, for hitch-hiking, for discovering the rest of our country, for long hair, long flowing skirts, and the need to get away.
By the time I reached fifth grade, I found an old army shirt with the sleeves cut off that must have belonged to Jeff and wore it to school. Enduring ridicule for my fashion choice, I told the most popular girl in our class—a girl who regularly teased me even after she had invited me to her house for a sleepover—to “drop dead” loudly in front of the whole class, a move that was accompanied by sympathetic and admiring jeers from many classmates. I began to see that I was not going to lead a conventional life and I embraced the idea fully. Instead of feeling left out by the popular girls and ashamed to hang out with my second cousin, who was pretending to be a horse pretty much 24/7 at that age, I embraced my outsider status, reveled in being picked last for all team sports, and ran around the playground during recess with my second cousin, the horse.
Jeff still was a peripheral part of our lives. He had gone off to college to study music, was still one with Jesus, and soon brought home a girl he said he intended to marry. I was probably in seventh or eighth grade by then. His girlfriend was a buxom blonde with wild eyes and big full lips. She was loud, like us, and was a voice major in college. They kissed in ways my parents never had. They seemed very sure of themselves and full of the promise. I was infinitely interested in them, and they were willing to talk. I asked her about sex and she gave me frank and open answers to my questions. I asked them questions about their faith, not so much because of any spiritual needs or inclinations of my own, but because it was obviously very dear to them, and I wanted to be close to my older brother. Maybe I wanted to feel some of the things he must have experienced, what I assumed were the same things I was longing for, gain some sense of the adventures he must be having. Mostly, I wanted to feel that comforting feeling of being lulled to sleep by the sound of his guitar across the hall from my room.
It’s been many years since then. Jeff’s life has taken him many places, as has my own. Jeff and I have spent time getting to know one another through the years at various periods of our lives, whether here in Columbus, or in D.C., or on Block Island, or in upstate New York. He is as much a part of my family as the three other siblings I have. You might attribute my memory of it being otherwise during my youth to a combination of pre-pubescent angst and sibling adoration. But that wouldn’t be the whole story. For even now, we are not happy at family reunions until Jeff plays the guitar for us.