The Other Brother
The property next door to ours in Amagansett sold recently for just under a million dollars. It was truly an absurd amount to pay for a two-room shingled shack and dilapidated workshop on half an acre. No doubt the shack will be demolished soon, to make way for a structure with as much square footage as can be squeezed into half an acre. I will be struck by a profound sense of loss when that happens. The shack on half an acre is all that remains of my rule-breaking, appliance-collecting, glass-blowing, wise-cracking, great-uncle Harold. My memory of Harold is vague. I only saw him when we visited my grandparents in Amagansett for a week every summer. I was about twelve when he died. There is no digital record of Harold’s existence. Those who knew him best are long gone. Harold was something of an outlier in the family; not a black sheep, exactly, but a venturer on an original path. Uncle Harold was unapologetically different; his personal credo: “I am what I am.” Or maybe that was Popeye. Both pipe-smoking sailors get muddled in my memory. What we learn about our ancestors is filtered through the perspectives of succeeding generations. The accepted family explanation of Uncle Harold was that he was a promising engineer who was jolted off-track by the untimely death of the love of his life. “Harold never recovered from Diane’s death,“ his unmarried sisters would say. Later, they would attribute some quirkiness to his having been seduced by his second wife, Elsie, an older woman who did not wear a brassiere. Harold appears in some of my grandfather’s home movies. The earliest reels show the family visiting the house in Amagansett and swimming at Indian Wells in the early 1930’s. There is my grandfather’s sister, Grace, and their younger sister, Helen, who lived with Grace in Brooklyn. There is my grandmother, wearing a dress and shoes on the beach, mouthing, “Go away” and turning her back to the camera. There are my mother and her sister and brother. In another shot, we see Grandpa’s brother, Harold, wearing a leotard-like swimsuit, robustly bounding into the waves. With a pipe in his mouth. Film images capture Harold, in suit and tie, rollerskating with the kids down the sidewalk in Brooklyn, pushing a box scooter, serving a steaming plate of corn on the cob, telling a joke. Always grinning. Often smirking. Others may have been disturbed by his quirkiness, but Harold was not. My great-aunt Grace, an elementary school principal in Brooklyn, built her summer house in Amagansett in 1932. My grandfather, who was also a principal in Brooklyn, inherited the place when Grace died in 1959. Harold, newly widowed, bought the land next door and amassed the materials and equipment to build a home and workshop. He put up a two-room shelter – space for a bed, a Franklin stove, and a sink. It is not clear whether it had indoor plumbing or electricity. The workshop, on the other hand, could house a family of six. It also had a Franklin stove for heat, and probably electricity and plumbing. After the building was done, Harold continued to amass materials and equipment. His older sisters charitably labeled him a “collector”. I like to think of him as a farmer of miscellany. He purchased old appliances and machinery at auctions, then planted them in his yard with the intention of repairing them. He had refrigerators in one row, ovens in another, washing machines aligned by the workshop. He also dabbled in living things, tending to chickens, a few cows, and blackberry bushes. Uncle Harold, dressed daily in an undershirt and overalls, would shuttle from the yard to the workshop and back, surveying his harvest. Harold also amassed property. One by one, he purchased all of the lots surrounding his. Eventually, he had over five acres on which to plant his appliances and raise his livestock. Meanwhile, next door, Grandpa winterized Grace‘s house, adding insulation and a heater. He and my grandmother moved in year-round after he retired. He laid oak floors and built a guest room. He installed a greenhouse and planted a tidy garden, bird baths, and bird feeders. The picket fence in front was kept a sharp white. My grandparents’ children went to college and graduate school, fell in love, and brought their prospective spouses to Amagansett to meet the family. The first time my aunt presented her fiance, Jack, a law student and amateur thespian, Uncle Harold set off fireworks during Jack’s recitation of Hamlet. My aunt was mortified, but Jack was not deterred. Uncle Harold reportedly attended the Merchant Marine Academy. He may have had some affiliation with the local Coast Guard. It is possible that he was an Amagansett firefighter and a leader of a Boy Scout troop. He probably spent time sailing a boat in Gardiner’s bay. If there were an obituary, I would be able to confirm these details. There is no written record of Harold’s accomplishments, so we are left to doubt that he had any. Uncle Harold and Elsie died under mysterious circumstances following a car accident. Or that’s what I remember hearing. Harold’s place took months to clear out. Among the old appliances, they discovered some fine oil paintings, oriental rugs, and a grand piano that had belonged to Diane. The property was bought by a retired fireman, who sold off the lots that Harold had accumulated, spawning five new houses. For inexplicable reasons, the fireman kept Harold’s old house, renovating it to make it rentable. He put it on the market last spring. It sold in a few weeks. Grace’s house now belongs to my brother and me, having been passed down from my grandparents, to my mother, to us. We are holding on, honoring my mother’s wish that the house stay in the family. I have always thought of this home as my mother’s legacy. She wanted us to know this place and, through it, to feel a kinship with the characters who created it. Lately, as I shepherd my son through medical and psychological examinations to determine the nature of his Autism, I have been thinking a lot about otherness. I wonder whether there is a quirkiness gene of some kind that has crept its way through the generations from my great-uncle Harold to my son. If so, then my son’s inheritance from my mother and her ancestors is something much more valuable than a property in Amagansett. It is the understanding that we are all different. Otherness is not a defect. It is not an illness; not a condition to be treated. You are who you are. Be happy.