Eulogy for My Brother, Happy New Year 2009
Thank you, Rabbi Stanway, for your sweet summation of my brother’s life. Thank you, Stacey for your loving words. Thank you, Jen for your loving heart. Thank you all for coming to my brother’s memorial service on such short notice. I know that most of you aren’t Jewish, but the Jewish thing to do is bing-bang get the burial over with in 24 hours. I’ve buried all my Jewish family within a day of their deaths. I know it’s a rush for you, but it’s been 3 days, and I’m not used to having all this extra time. Turns out not to be such a bad thing. I had time to get to know my brother’s family better. I had time to write this eulogy.
My brother was not a practicing Jew. He called himself a cardiac Jew—a Jew at heart.
If you know my brother, you know how much he loved to consult the internet for every little thing. So in honor of his love of his computer, the internet and gadgets in general, I decided to consult the internet and see what I could come up with in terms of wisdom about brothers.
I found this quote by Clara Ortega on every quotation site I looked at, so I guess her words touch a lot of people as being true and wise:
“To the outside world we all grow old. But not to brothers and sisters. We know each other as we always were. We know each other’s hearts. We share private family jokes. We remember family feuds and secrets, family griefs and joys. We live outside the touch of time.”
I don’t know about you, but the past few days since Alan’s unexpected and untimely death last Tuesday, I have been living totally outside the touch of time. Really. See, time is measured by memories and dreams and when you’re outside of time, memories get lost or out of order. And dreams? We forget them in our grief. Or we misremember our dreams as reality. That’s what it means to be outside of time.
My big brother is gone, and I want to honor his life. It’s not the first time I’ve done this. As my brother’s best man, I wrote the first toast at his first wedding. Today, as his surviving sister, I’m writing his eulogy.
Did that line get ya laughin’, Alan?
I’m going to share with you some of the jumble of our shared memories that is my mind in these sad days. Like, did you know that for his college summer job, Alan managed two of Asbury Park’s largest movie theaters? He did: The St. James and The Mayfair. He used to get me in for free. On weekends, the St. James had kiddie matinees. There was always a raffle and a prize. One weekend, he rigged the raffle so that my friend Ricky McDonough and I both won. That week, the prize was a plastic model submarine, and he knew how much I loved building models. In the summer of 1962, against my parents’ wishes, Alan let me watch the very adult film, Lawrence of Arabia eight times during its exclusive Jersey Shore run.
Did you know that my brother’s passion in high school—his favorite extra-curricular activity—was acting? Every time he was in a show, my dad drove us all up to Bucks County, Pennsylvania to watch Alan perform the lead roles of the Stage Manager in Our Town, and Shylock in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. He made me laugh and he made me cry. Twelve years later, Alan travelled up to Providence Rhode Island to watch me perform the role of Launcelot Gobbo… Shylock’s clown servant in Merchant of Venice. A few years later still, he watched me play King Lear. I made him laugh, and I made him cry. Alan’s love for theater and his finesse as an actor had a lot to do with my own decision to become a playwright and performance artist.
Alan and I grew up in a household that listened to Perry Como, Lawrence Welk, and Doris Day. My big brother changed all that. He bought us our first Hi-Fi stereo phonograph. He was always on the cutting edge of gadgets and technology.
He brought the calypso beat of Harry Belafonte into our house. He brought folk musicians The Kingston Trio, and Country Western’s Johnny Cash. My brother made my Jewish family laugh by bringing home comedy albums of up and coming comedians: Steve Allen, Bob Newhart, and Bill Cosby. His favorite vocalist of all time was Eartha Kitt, who passed from this world just a week ago. She was 81. Alan was 67.
Here’s a favorite quote of mine from storyteller Garrison Keillor:
The highlight of my childhood was making my brother laugh so hard that food came out his nose.
Gotcha laughing yet, Alan? Here’s a story I know is gonna make you howl.
My mother’s mother, Essie, lived with us. She babysat the two of us when my parents went out dancing or to dinner, or for a weekend at the races. One of my earliest memories of my brother was the beautiful, warm spring day in 1952. My parents were driving home from the Kentucky Derby. It was the first year they’d televised the Derby, and Alan and I watched for but never saw their faces on TV. Essie wanted everything to be perfect for them when they come home. It was a warm day in May, and she dressed me in a seersucker playsuit. I was four and I looked really cute. It was getting close to the time they’d be pulling around the corner in the huge Packard, which was four years old just like me.
“C’mon outside so they can see us when they turn the corner,” my brother cried. And I followed him. I always followed big brother whenever he told me to.
“Stand right here. It’s the first place they’ll look, and you’ll be the first person they see!”
Wow! I stood right where he told me to stand, just in time to see my parents pull around the corner in their big old car. I jumped up and down and waved. I saw them wave back through the windshield. And that’s when Alan pulled the cord, and let down the awning that had filled with water from the big rain we’d had the night before.
Torrents of water poured over me. My seersucker play suit clung to my cold wet skin. Stunned, I saw my mother break into laughter. My father had stopped the car in the road. He was laughing, too. Essie had run out of the house and was chasing Alan with a rolled up newspaper. It was a terrible moment and a terrific memory.
My big brother had the best bedroom in the house. It was a second-floor front corner room. Here’s something our parents never knew: in the summer Alan would climb out the side window, slide down the shingled roof and catch himself from falling by grabbing onto the huge tree branch that touched our drain gutters. Then he’d shimmy his way along twelve to fifteen feet of branch and scurry down the tree trunk where his friend Nick Antich would be waiting. They’d go out riding their bicycles. I never knew what time they got back, or how he got back into his room. I’d always fallen asleep before they returned.
When Alan moved out, I got his room, but by that time lightening had struck down the tree on the corner, which was just as well because I was way too scared and too chubby to following the acrobatic footsteps of my skinny brother’s derring-do late night life. Oh yeah, he was the skinny one. I was the fat one. He was Wally, and I was the Beaver.
When I was ten, maybe eleven, I was alone in the living room with one of my uncles. He was poking me in the tummy.
“You’re puttin’ on some weight there, aren’t you, Albert?”
“You’re gettin’ to be a regular chubby little guy, eh?”
“In few more years, you’ll be…”
And then my uncle wasn’t standing in front of me any more. My brother Alan had run into the room. He’d yanked my uncle away and slammed him up against the living room wall. He was holding my uncle by his shirtfront. He was furious.
“Don’t you ever tease my little brother like that again. Ever. You hear me?”
My uncle nodded his agreement, and he never did tease me again.
I know I’ve thanked you for that before, but thanks again, Alan.
My big brother loved Science Fiction, and I read his books second hand: Robert Heinlein, Ray Bradbury, and Fredric Brown. We even had an old 1947 copy of Astounding Tales up in the attic, with a story in it by L. Ron Hubbard. This was years before Hubbard set up his cult of Scientology, which—in 1970—swept me away from my family for nearly a dozen years.
I was the black sheep of the family. I mean, no duh! This is not how a proper Jewish man is supposed to look when he’s delivering his brother’s eulogy. I was always coloring outside the lines. I was the rebel, I was the hippie, I was the artist.
My brother wasn’t a beatnik. He was too clean cut for that. He was a fraternity man in college: Tau Kappa Epsilon, TKE. Every six weeks ago, he’d bring a dozen or so of his frat brothers home to New Jersey for sleep-over parties at my parents’ house. My father provided the beer, my mother made the lavish morning-after brunch. Girls slept everywhere upstairs, and boys slept everywhere downstairs. Bruce Hoffman’s father sat awake on the stair landing all night, to make sure there was no hanky-panky going on.
Alan was a pre-war baby, 1941. I was born a year after the armistice in 1948. The seven years that separated us kept us apart most of our lives: me at home while he was away at summer camp or prep school, college, graduate school, the Air Force reserves. We saw each other infrequently as adults. By the time he moved back to the Jersey Shore, I was the one who was away at college, then graduate school, and then Scientology.
Here’s another lovely quote from Clara Ortega:
The mildest, drowsiest sister has been known to turn tiger if her sibling is in trouble.
I watched my big brother’s heart break once. Then twice. Then three times and four. If you know all the details about his heartaches, fine. If you don’t know why, it’s fine to simply know he was broken-hearted one time too many.
Bornstein men, including me, when we’re that hurt? We isolate, we hide, we get angry, we want the world to go away. Well, Alan was badly hurt. He moved in with my mom who’d lost her husband to death and her younger son first to a cult and then to a sex change. For over a decade, Alan lived with our mother as a recluse. He stopped having fun. The two of them rattled around in that giant old house of ours in Interlaken.
My big brother became a frightened, angry, pale-skinned old man. He was Boo Radley in To Kill A Mockingbird. But then, our mother introduced Alan to Deborah. It was love at first sight, and Alan’s life changed for the better at that moment. Apparently the Beatles were right when they sang Love Is All You Need, because Deborah’s love and the welcome Alan received in her family—that’s what saved my big brother’s life and I’m grateful to you all more than words can say. In the arms of your love and your joy, he blossomed again like a flower. Because of you and your family, Deb, I can tell people that my brother died ahead of his time, but he died a happy man.
So, Happy New Year. This year, I plan to keep Alan’s spirit safe and happy. I’m dedicating my 2009 to the spirit of Alan Vandam Bornstein, Al, Doc, Pop Pop—whatever you called him—to the love he gave, and the love he inspired in others. When I miss you, Alan—and I will, I already have, and I will, we all will—but when that happens, I’m gonna look at the world through your compassionate eyes, your mischievous eyes, your generous eyes. And that’s how I plan to honor you, big brother. I am the fierce tiger standing guard over your honor. I promise.
So, happy new year. In 2009, I invite you to join me in dedicating this year to living life the way our Alan would have loved us to live it. Thank you.