I think Atticus was four years old the first time I realized how powerful the bond that exists between brothers can be. We were at church, I was teaching, and the kids were in craft clean-up mode. A little line was snaking from the bathroom sink, out into the classroom, where I was busily tidying up and readying for our next project. Suddenly I heard a commotion. Scolding myself under my breath for not keeping a closer tab on the bathroom queue, I popped my head in to assess the goings on.
To my utter amazement, it was my boys in the midst of the foray. My boys: two and a half and four and a half years old, respectively. They were back to back, fists flying, eyes mere slits, and mouths smirking as they dodged hits and administered their own punches.
I was appalled. Absolutely, drop-dead appalled. Even when I was able to untangle the threads that led to the skirmish (another child called Atticus a name), even when I understood that one of them was protecting the other in his own fists-before-figuring kind of way, well ... I couldn't shake the image. My babies, my boys, backs pressed against one another, taking on all comers in an out-and-out brawl. And enjoying it.
It was unnerving, to say the least.
I remember at the time explaining my horror to my father. Frankly, he didn't make the whole situation any better. After he finished wiping the tears of laughter from his cheeks and asking me to describe the set of their jaws for the fifth time, he offered this wisdom:
"That's what brothers do. Sometimes you get so mad you just want to kick his tail up and down the road to prove you can. But Lord forbid anyone else should take a go at him, because you're just going to lay him out cold. No questions asked."
My father knows what he's talking about: he is older than his twin brother by 15 minutes. In infancy, they slept curled together in a bureau drawer set on the floor by my grandparents' mattress. As they grew, they wore the same clothes, smiled at the same girls, and were never more than a shoulder apart from one another. It took my uncle being drafted in the Vietnam War to separate them for the first time; now at age 60, The Brothers, as they're collectively known, live with their wives on 35 shared acres just outside their hometown. Their houses are literally a shout away from one another, and they are slowly driving their women insane as they putter about together in their pre-retirement farming efforts.
After seeing that first violent act of loyalty between my two oldest boys, I admit that I began to question the rough-edged love that brothers seem to have for one another. It's an almost primal thing, from what I can tell. There is love, yes ... but it is mixed with an ever-present need to communicate one's status, gifts, or power. It is a love conveyed with punches and too-tight hugs. It's something that I--as a woman, and most especially as a mother--just can't fathom.
Five years later, I believe that I am beginning to see the unfolding of the relationship that exists between Atticus and Logan. They are still quite young--just 9 and 7-- but yes, they are strong friends. I can not say that they are best friends because, in truth, Atticus and Jo are my peas in a pod. But between Atticus and Logan, something else exists. Something else entirely. Something that is rough and ugly, yes--something that occasionally precipitates the need for a good hard shove, or for a kick to the shin, apparently. But it's something beautiful, too. Something warm and protective and willing to sacrifice to ensure the others' happiness and joy.
I was talking to my father on the phone yesterday and heard a metal chair scrape across the concrete patio slab. There was no vocal acknowledgment on my dad's behalf, but this much I knew: his brother had just come over to sit a while.
"Uncle Harlan there?" I asked.
"Yeah," Dad answered.
I looked over at my two big boys, playing Lincoln Logs on the floor, competing to build the biggest line of log cannons to line up behind their little green soldiers. I pictured them, 50 + years from now, sharing a Coke under a patio umbrella after having put in a nice winter cover crop on their fields.
"Sure is nice for you to be able to spend so much time together," I said. And, without warning, my mind was going over the family news of the day: Mr. Blanding's cousins, 25 and 24 year-old brothers, had just signed their letters of intent with the Marines. After having gone to college together, living in the same apartment, having the same friends, they were embarking on their next adventure. Together, of course.
"Mr. Blanding's cousins are joining the Marines together," I told my dad. "They just finished college. I've been wondering how their mother must feel," I blurted.
My dad paused, taking a pull off of his Coke, remembering 1969--the year his brother took his first-ever airplane trip and found himself in Southeast Asia with a gun in his hands while my father, alone for the first time, wandered aimlessly over a landscape of hippies and draft dodgers.
Finally, my father told me this: "I can't tell you how their mother feels. I bet she feels pretty bad, to be honest. But I can tell you how those boys feel. They know there's nothing worse than knowing your brother's in a fight and you don't have his back."
The picture of Atticus and Logan, all those years ago, clawing their way to victory rose up in my mind, and for the first time, I saw something redemptive in it. Not in the fight itself, of course; I'm not a fan of fisticuffs whatever form it takes. But the emotion behind the act ... therein lies the beauty.
They love one another.
Yes, it is a love that has less softness than grit. And yes, it is a love replete with gentle egging and more than a few taunts. But it is love. Brotherly love. Love that will bare its teeth, fight, sacrifice. Love that will, no doubt, drive me crazy mad as the years go on. But love nonetheless. Love that has one another's back.