But, the crazy fact is, I always knew that if I needed him, he’d be there.
Once, when my parents were worried about me as a teenager – and I gave them plenty of reason to worry – my mother asked Robert to take me out and talk to me. We went to some restaurant and ate cocktail shrimp in the mall and then, I think we saw a movie. As I recall, he used the movie as a pretense for “the conversation.” It was awkward. I don’t know what my parents were thinking. Robert and I didn’t ever talk on this level so it was weird to suddenly have him act all concerned and sweet to me. Even then, I took it seriously though. I knew the way he was talking to me was important. I knew he was trying very hard to be a good big brother. And, I remember him telling me that I was beautiful and smart but that I hid my beauty and my intelligence in ugly clothes and bad attitudes. He was, of course, dead on. Although my clothes were a certain variety of “cool” among the grungy pack of wanna-be punk-rockers I hung out with, they certainly did not reflect anything like “beauty.” And, let’s just say… I made a lot of stupid choices for such a smart kid. I know for sure when he told me this – that I was beautiful and smart -- I rolled my eyes at him and made a bunch of wise-ass comments and probably acted all kinds of pissy. But, I also never forgot it. I realize now that it meant a lot to me to hear him say those things even though I never told him and even though I acted like I didn’t even hear him.
When I became pregnant with my son, I was 28 years old and had a two-year lectureship appointment at a University, which is not a bad start to a career as a college professor. But… I was also still fairly recently divorced and the man I was living with (now, my husband, Tim), I had only known for a very short time. My family didn’t really know him at all. In fact, they knew him so little that he didn’t even accompany me home for Thanksgiving that year. This is a big deal because Thanksgiving was (and to some extent still is) a very big deal in my family.
I remember when I broke the news that I was pregnant to my mother, I felt like I might as well have been 15 and homeless for how crazy my situation was going to seem to my family. Strangely, she did not make me feel that way. After taking one visible gulp, she smiled and immediately said she was excited and happy and she started telling me all of her birth stories, about which births caused her trouble and which were easier. She told me that when Mitchell was born, she begged the doctor to keep her in the hospital because she was so scared of going home to three babies all in diapers (My mother had her first five children, all about one year apart). She told me about all of her pregnancies – which were hard and which were pleasant. She told me that her mother influenced her to stop nursing the other five kids very early because she said they were “starving” but that, when I was born, she lived far away from her mother so she was able to nurse me as long as she wanted. I nursed for at least 18 months from what she could remember which strangely made me feel a little proud of both of us. The long conversation I had with my mother on her couch, in the morning, after I worked up the nerve to tell her that I was pregnant is now an absolute treasure to me. Her words and her wisdom were the only nourishment I needed that morning.
As news spread throughout the day, everyone in my family seemed worried about me and even a little disappointed in me, but when Robert dropped me off at the airport later that week, he held me super tight for a moment and whispered in my ear, “take care of that little baby.” He sounded choked-up when he said it. And, for some reason, him saying it – more than any of my other siblings – just immediately brought tears to my eyes. We were never especially good at telling each other that we loved one another but in that moment, I could not have doubted his love for me.
The truth about my brother Robert is that he was an absolute teddy bear. The truth about all of the men in my family is that they are much softer on the inside than they think they should ever allow to show on the outside. Sometimes, I think they didn’t get the memo that it is now the 21st century and it’s okay for a man to have feelings. Sometimes, I think they don’t give a damn what century it is. And, sometimes, I think their exterior toughness is a form of wisdom I have not yet fully begun to understand. I know, now, that that toughness is often relied upon by others in certain situations, for example, when one has to administer morphine to a dying man. I also know, now, that when true sorrow requires tears, the men in my family are not ashamed of crying. But, most often, Robert didn’t let his softness show around our family – at least not around me. Still, when our mother died, we held each other and cried after the funeral, still standing in the pews. And when our father died, we held each other and cried and we both said, “I love you.” I’m so glad we did.
The depth to which I love my entire family, hit me very hard at my brother Robert’s funeral in July. And, sitting there, in front of his casket with my brother, Jeffrey, at my side, it occurred to me that I am proud of my family and proud of who I am because of them. There are some members of my family and the world at large who will refer to my family’s name as something negative in phrases such as, “That must be a Stevenson thing” or “You’re such a Stevenson,” or “Typical Stevenson!” But, dear reader, let me tell you something that I wish I could’ve learned long before all of this death and let me especially say this to any of the young Stevenson’s who could be reading: Stevenson’s are hard-working, loving, strong, loyal, tough, generous, humble, fun, sensitive, brave and smart. We are other things too – some not so awesome things. But because of our humility we are quick to believe that Stevensons are just those negative things and not all of the positive attributes I’ve just named. Robert, I’m certain, suffered from the same emotional eating habits that I do. With both of us, the worse we feel about ourselves, the more we eat and the more we eat, the worse we feel about ourselves. For emotional eaters/ compulsive overeaters, this is the fast downward spiral to unhealthiness and self-loathing. I believe Robert often forgot that he was all of those great things – hard-working, loving, strong, loyal, tough, generous, humble, fun, sensitive, brave and smart -- or maybe he never knew it or because of his humility, he could often not see these great things in himself even when he saw them so easily in others. I think he always looked up to his big brothers and our father and thought he should be more like them. I wish he knew that he was just like them in all the ways that matter.
Sitting in Robert’s funeral, I was overwhelmed with this one thought: I am proud to be a Stevenson and I am proud to be Robert’s sister and I know that part of who he was is who I am and I am proud of that too. This pride is especially important for me as I look at my nieces and nephews and my own children. If you grow up not taking pride in your family, there is at least a small part of you that will find it difficult to take pride in yourself, which will lead to self-doubt, self-loathing, and the pushing away of family because you have to prove how different you are from them. But, once we can acknowledge that there are good aspects of who we are and what we do, we can cultivate those aspects of ourselves and gently push against the obstacles of the attributes we don’t particularly like. I choose to cultivate the sense of happiness it gives me to feed my family well that my mother handed down to me. I gently push away my/ her self-loathing. I choose to cultivate the love and deep connection I feel to my family (the love and connection my mother created for me) and the grounded-ness that gives me in my life. I gently push away the petty arguments, disagreements and differences that keep us from loving one another fully. I choose to cultivate the healthy sweat my father knew how to work up while out in the garden or working on a construction project by running, swimming, biking, lifting, dancing, and moving my body as often and as much as I can. I gently push away old habits of self-doubt.
It suddenly occurs to me that there has been no cooking in MoJo’s Kitchen again. Again, we are busy trying to put the events of the past several months and years in their proper place. Sometimes the kitchen is just full of talk. Mitchell’s death came so quickly after Robert’s that we hadn’t even had time to put our black dresses away or make the decaf. Funerals taste like decaf and dry cookies. There has to be a moment of clearing the palette before one gets on with the business of continuing to live. We’ll be ready soon. In the meantime,
Vaya Con Dios.