"You're always so happy when your family comes visiting," Fritz said once early on.
"Well. Yes." I'd shrugged. But even then I'd caught the note of wistfulness.
The particular time Fritz said it (though it was true whenever any of them came) was when my one brother who was a freshman in college at the time had come to spend the evening with us in our first home. I was making mashed potatoes in his honor, which I had never before made without my mother's supervision, and left the potatoes on the boil so long - while the sun set and the stars peeped in through the eyelet curtains at the window, while we talked and laughed at the waiting half-set table - so long that the thin shards of white potato had mostly dissolved into the starchy water when I turned my attention back to them.
"Oh, no!" I had wailed. But I'd mashed the few soft lumps up all the same.
My brother is telling this story again the last night we were all visiting at our parents' home. His chuckle is fond. He says, "There was only a little mound for each of us. A spoonful at most. But they were the best potatoes I'd ever had." My brother nods sentimentally at me still, that unexpectedly sweet smile on his usually smart-mouth face, all these years later.
Like our dad, he is especially satisfying to cook for - before even a bite is tasted, my brother and my dad will look around the table and then say my name, or Mom's, or Jackie's now, whoever it is whose beneficent hand has spread this feast before them "- this looks so good! Thank you," so sincerely, like we've done something out of the ordinary, almost magical - though they are both good cooks themselves.
My methodical Fritz shakes his head a little at this precipitate praise of the untasted. At home he'll say, "I think I liked it better the way you made it last time," after swallowing a careful mouthful.
Accuracy, you know.
As a girl, a young woman, on Sundays or before dances or dates, when I'd descend down the stairs or enter the room, my dad and my brothers would look up and say, with appreciative surprise, "You sure look pretty!" Or "Wow, you look great!" It got so I believed them - these men who wear their emotions on the outside, whose accuracy maybe some would quibble at.
There was a stretch of time, once he'd grown older, after spending lonely years away, far away, when my brother used to say that he worried he didn't have it in him to love deeply. He'd say this, when home on a visit, then bend over his guitar and mourn in songs we'd heard our dad sing and newer songs, lonesome and yearning.
Came the essential and requisite heartbreak, when my brother said softly through the phone, "I thought I couldn't feel things deeply. I think maybe I was just hiding from it because I knew the hurt would be too deep."
I remember meeting him at the airport shortly after, a single bag on his back and a guitar case. All that afternoon and late into the evening, he followed me around playing heartbroken songs, as I chopped onions in the kitchen, weeded columbine and mother-of-thyme in the garden, sat down beside the fire Fritz had quietly built inside the fireplace. The saddest songs I've ever heard. But so beautiful - like sad things so often are.
We - his siblings and parents - could gauge my brother's suffering progress through the songs he sang, calling each other with relief and teary joy when he at last began to sing Don Henley's "Heart of the Matter."
I've been tryin' to get down
to the heart of the matter
But my will gets weak
and my thoughts seem to scatter
But I think it's about . . . forgiveness
Forgiveness . . .
Even if, even if you don't love me anymore . . .
Now tonight, when Dad takes a break from the guitar, our brother plays this song again. But tonight his spirit doesn't inhabit this song the way it used to, though his voice is still as tender and true.
Where he lives now is in songs like "Brown-Eyed Girl" which makes his lovely brown-eyed wife laugh and gleam. Songs like "Lover Lay Down," a song the Dave Matthews Band performs in a not-too-distant second to my brother's version:
Like our dad, my brother adjusts his words in some songs to suit the audience. Jackie says she started to fall for Rob when my dad came out to visit and they seranaded her together, singing "Long Black Veil," but my brother croons it tonight, as he did first when he sang it before Jackie's teenage daughter - a version where the murder suspect can't exonerate himself because he won't admit he spent the night in question in the arms of a "great big fuzzy teddy bear."
My sister laughs, "Like how Dad used to drink another root beer, sing another verse of the workingman blues before going out to buy his kids another pair of shoes?"
"Or how his wandering cowboy drank milk and root beer all along the way, because he couldn't get some of that Rocky Mountain water?" We laugh.
My brother just smiles. Changes keys. Sings
. . . this beautiful lady
is walking around with me
and then she asks me, 'Do you feel all right?'
And I say, 'Yes,
I feel wonderful tonight.'
I feel wonderful
because I see
the lovelight in your eyes . . .
Fritz likes to call this "The Gummer Song" whenever my brother sings it - "Well, listen to the words, she's practically pushing him around in a wheelchair - he gives her the car keys, she helps him to bed. What is he, like seventy?"
I run my hand over the short velvet of the hair on the back of Fritz's head and smile back at my brother who shakes his head.
Another song, then my brother turns a particularly tender gaze on his baby boy. Passes the guitar back to Dad, picks up his son, cuddling him up in his arms. From across the room, YoungSon comes over, bounces his sleepy 8-year-old self down into Fritz's lap.
I hear so much how mean men can be. But I'm standing here singing this little song of gratitude that my life has been blessed with men with a gentleness in them, who can give voice to sweet affection and delight - despite their different quirks and angles - good men who sing. And good men who don't.