February 3, 2017 | My Jottings
I have a few good memories of my brother Steve.
When my first marriage ended suddenly while living in Germany, I was 22 and my daughters were 2 years and 8 months old. We returned to Southern California to get our bearings, and Steve and his first wife were very good to my little girls. They took toddler Sharon to their favorite salon in Beverly Hills for her first official haircut. We delighted in the way Sharon said, “Unca Steeb got my hair cut in Bebbaly Hills!”
He would get down on the floor with my girls and play with blocks and dolls, and read books to them. He laughed at their antics and hugged and kissed them. They adored him for the short time he was in their lives. Once my divorce was final, my girls and I moved to a beach city an hour away when I got a job, an apartment and began life as a single mom. Steve’s marriage ended not long after that and he was involved in trying to recreate his own life, so we didn’t have much contact.
But the way he doted on my young daughters is what I remember most fondly.
I had two older brothers. Larry was 15 years older than I, Steve was 10 years older. In many ways I was like an only child, since by the time I was 8, both of my brothers had moved out. My most vivid memories of my brother Steve all revolve around the way I knew he felt about me: I was his pesky younger sister. I know he must have loved me because we were siblings, but he was more often dismissive of me. Sometimes he teased me by putting his front teeth over his lower lip as if he had an overbite, making a goofy rodent sound and calling me Bucky Beaver. Those were the days before my braces. He also liked to scare me a lot. He used to hide behind a door or crouch outside in the brick-bordered flower bed under my bedroom window at night, and when he saw me he would jump out and yell a loud and deep “mwahahahaha!!” and he would laugh when I cried or got mad at him for doing that.
I’m told he was a sensitive little boy, and I know now that he was secretly and violently bullied by my older brother.
Steve didn’t like to get dirty even when he was young, and didn’t want to be a boy scout because that meant camping, which meant getting dirty. He used to shower twice a day as an adult. He always looked nice, dressed well, took care of himself.
Here’s a picture of Steve in 1949, when he was two years old.
He loved peanut butter and jelly and milk. He used to take a spoon and scrape out a dollop of Skippy, and then a plop of Welch’s grape jelly on top of that for a quick snack, washed down with a swallow of Foremost milk from the carton. He loved graham crackers and milk. I remember seeing him when he was a teen, dipping a layered pile of long graham crackers into a bowl of milk, and biting off the soft, mushy ends. To this day I could have that same snack if I’d let myself.
By the time he was in junior high school he was excelling in basketball. We had a basketball hoop on our garage on Eckerman Avenue in West Covina, and Steve shot baskets constantly. He carried a basketball with him in the house, and used to effortlessly spin and balance it on the tip of his finger. My dad was the basketball coach at Covina High School, and by the time Steve attended there, he was a star player. Because he was only 6′ 1″ he was a guard, but he was quick, a superb shooter and ball handler, and he held the school record for assists decades after he graduated in 1965.
I didn’t know then how strained the relationship was between my dad and Steve. I think as long as Steve did well on the court, things were okay with them. But after he graduated from high school and went to college and didn’t finish, things between him and my dad deteriorated. My dad could have been a more supportive father. He showed dictator-like qualities toward his sons that he didn’t toward me. He put his coaching before his family at times. Then my father divorced my mother after 31 years of marriage and that seismic event made us all into people we didn’t want to be. I have some pretty awful memories from those years. One of those horrible memories resulted in complete estrangement between my dad and Steve, and Steve legally changed his last name from Sooter to Brontë.
Steve tried high school basketball coaching, but it didn’t last. I was never sure why. He married his long time girlfriend and they both had good jobs and a lifestyle that included frequent French dining in Beverly Hills, shopping at Saks Fifth Avenue, and European trips.
Over the years Steve and my dad would have tentative contact with each other and it seemed like things were going to mend, but harsh words and accusations would always erupt and then it was over again. Sometimes for years.
I don’t want to write too many details, but what should be mentioned is that unforgiveness and bitterness can change a person into someone hardly recognizable if those choices are left to stand for years. Steve never got the kinds of apologies from my father that he should have had. Pride is also a great destroyer.
When Michael and I married in 1981, it was the last time my family was ever together in one place. This photo was taken on that day.
From left to right: me (age 23), Carolyn (age 2), Sharon (age 4) and Steve (age 33).
As decades passed, my brother did and said things that stunned the rest of us, and we were a family by DNA only. My brothers were estranged from each other, from my father, my parents were divorced, and my brothers came in and out of my life as their moods struck them.
Steve married again and had two children. His wife and grown kids are beautiful and have trusted God to get them through the hell that was their existence. Steve eventually ruined every relationship he had, and his family had to try to survive apart from him. They moved to a state where decent jobs could be had, and Steve stayed in California and mostly lived in his car.
I never quite understood why Steve alternately loved and hated me. Once in a while I would get an email from him, apologizing and asking for a fresh start, and we would try to begin again. But invariably it would all fall apart when I refused to hate or disown my father for letting his family down. I was terribly confused and disappointed by the things I learned about my dad, but I had seen the wreckage bitterness brings, and I didn’t want to let my pain bring me to that. So then the fragile beginnings Steve and I were making would collapse and he would cut me out of his life with vitriol and cruel, mocking hate mail. I wouldn’t respond, and the wall around my heart got thicker and taller. This happened at least a dozen times. It wasn’t that I didn’t love him, I just didn’t trust him. I had deep compassion for him, and deeper suspicion, all mixed together.
He used to check in on this blog, and he usually left comments that were reminiscent of the Steve I knew could be — loving, sensitive, funny, compassionate. My heart would wrench at those times and I would think to myself that maybe it was time to reach out to Steve after so many years had passed and try again to have a brother-sister relationship.
In September of 2016 I was walking in the cemetery where Michael is buried, as I love to do. The maples were showing off their glowing oranges and golds and crimsons, and leaves drifted to the ground around me as I strolled. My cell phone rang and I didn’t recognize the number, so I let it go to voicemail. When I listened to the message it was Steve, saying hi in that old voice of his that told me he was more himself that day. He knew from my blog that Michael had died. He was still estranged from his own family and I don’t think he ever fully understood that it was his doing. His words told me he was feeling wistful and wished that he and I could have a real, supportive, brother-sister relationship. He told me he loved me and asked me to return his call, words I’d heard a hundred times. Only someone who knows Steve could understand why I wouldn’t just punch in his number and call him back right that minute. He perceived my guardedness and silence as unforgiveness and anger. I knew it was self-preservation and the unwillingness to open the door to drama and strife in a time of my life when Michael’s health was fast declining. Only someone who has gone through something like what our family did can truly understand that you can love a person and still not trust them. Steve never understood that.
But that golden morning at the cemetery tears came to my eyes and I prayed to the Lord about Steve. My heart hurt at what his life had become, and how easy it had been for me to just keep the lid of that Pandora’s box locked. I told the Lord that if He wanted me to try again with Steve, I would. I would answer Steve’s call the next time he rang.
But he would never call again.
The Los Angeles County coroner thinks my brother died of a heart attack on October 1, just three weeks after his call to me. He was found almost three days later, in the business of an old photography friend of his, who had been letting him stay in a shed of sorts at the back of the building. He died alone, not connected to his family, and I had not responded to his pleas to call him back.
His family decided that there would be no funeral or service, no obituary, no way of memorializing him whatsoever. I do not pretend to understand what they experienced, and have nothing but love for them. All three of them are beautiful people who have weathered the storm of their lives in ways I can only surmise was due to the grace of God.
As much as I’m trying to here, I have not been able to put words to what I feel after knowing that Steve’s message to me in September was his last. Sorrow, guilt, regret, unbelief, grief….these words only touch the surface of the turmoil that sloshes around in my heart when I allow myself a few minutes to ponder his life and passing.
My one consolation is for the both of us. Steve was a believer in Jesus, and even though his faith never worked itself outward as much as it should have, there is no doubt in my mind that he cried out to the Lord every day.
I also am a believer in Jesus. And my faith hasn’t worked itself outward in the radical changes I have hoped for either.
And I cry out to the Lord every day.
He does not deal with us according to our sins,
nor repay us according to our iniquities.
For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west,
so far does he remove our transgressions from us.
As a father shows compassion to his children,
so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him.
For he knows our frame;
he remembers that we are dust.
As for man, his days are like grass;
he flourishes like a flower of the field;
for the wind passes over it, and it is gone,
and its place knows it no more.
But the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him,
and his righteousness to children’s children,
to those who keep his covenant
and remember to do his commandments.
The Lord has established his throne in the heavens,
and his kingdom rules over all.
Bless the Lord, O you his angels,
you mighty ones who do his word,
obeying the voice of his word!
Bless the Lord, all his hosts,
his ministers, who do his will!
Bless the Lord, all his works,
in all places of his dominion.
Bless the Lord, O my soul!
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