|THE TROUBLE WITH GERRY|
by Christopher Harris In 1964 my thirty-one-year-old brother Gerry cut himself off from our family. I was 19. I’ve never come to terms with his disappearance. Many times I’ve thought of him, wondering why a brother I loved abandoned me. When I recently learned that Gerry had died, I had little more grief to give after fifty years of loss, but I thought his death might have opened a window onto the reason he turned his back on us.
With his death information about Gerry appeared in online genealogy sites, including a partial list of places he had lived after he disappeared. I now could begin exploring his life following the break with our family. But was I willing to face difficult truths I might find? I asked myself why I’d started looking for him again.
“You’ll never learn why he left you,” my wife commented.
She was probably right, but I decided I had to try.
An internet search revealed that Gerry’s residences over the years were within Ft. Lauderdale, where he had moved from Princeton, New Jersey. I turned that over in my mind; Gerry had lived in the city since 1964 and yet we never found him. For a while my brother Rod and I tried calling Ft. Lauderdale, thinking he might have a phone. Looking back, it was foolish to believe these occasional attempts by phone over the years would succeed. Gerry hadn’t had a phone when he lived in Princeton, he had used Ft. Lauderdale pay phones for his one yearly call on Christmas Day, and yet we believed we might reach him with a call. Gerry shunned phones, perhaps rightly fearing that directory information would lead us to him.
Using Google’s panoramic street photographs, I examined buildings where Gerry had lived, as if a view from the street could reveal traces of his life. With my cursor, I traveled up and down streets, looking along one side, rotating the view to move down the other. Most were multistory apartment buildings situated on busy streets. Number twelve thirty-nine was different, a pink single-story building with two wings that embraced a parking area. Google’s camera had reached into the branches of a gingko tree, its red and yellow leaves blocking some of the view while lending a bucolic atmosphere to the scene. During his last three years my brother had lived at twelve thirty-nine.
I tracked down the building’s landlord, Mark. After Gerry died, Mark cleared out the sparsely furnished apartment. Mark kept objects my brother had collected, among them a map of the Battle of Gettysburg, where our ancestors, the Blisses, owned a farm when Union and Confederate armies fought the decisive battle of the Civil War; a photograph of a GI lighting the cigarette of another soldier inscribed “Joe with British commandos after the Dieppo raid/19 Aug ’42”; and a badge of the 15th Special Operations Squadron. The squadron, based in the Florida panhandle, flies Air Force gunships, its most notable deployment being to Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War. Gerry’s attachment to the squadron badge is unexplained. Even more curious is the keepsake of an unknown man named Ben, a World War II soldier unrelated to anyone in our family.
I was six when Gerry left for college to study design, painting, and sculpture. I have only vague memories of him before he left our Illinois home: the way I shined a flashlight in his eyes to wake him, the smell of oil in the auto repair shop where Gerry landed a summer job, the day he and Rod took my ping-pong ball air rifles for an afternoon war game with high school friends. The presents Gerry sent home are more vivid. Each was exquisitely wrapped, glued, not taped, with beautiful ribbon. One Christmas I received a box covered with Japanese paper. A Midwest boy who hadn’t been to the seashore, I wondered at its contents—three layers of cotton batting with shells arranged by color and size.
As his college sophomore year was ending, Gerry discovered he needed a music appreciation course to graduate. Feeling a degree wasn’t worth enduring a class he thought ridiculous, he dropped out of school and was soon drafted into the Army. During those eighteen Army months he married his college sweetheart, Bunny, and worked as a photographer at bases in New Jersey, Florida, and Texas. He returned to Ohio after being discharged and opened a Jaguar auto repair shop with a friend. The venture lasted three years. When his partner signed a radio advertising contract without Gerry’s agreement, Gerry pulled out of the business.
My mother viewed these abrupt changes in direction as a mark of Gerry’s self-reliance. It was a quality she encouraged in her boys. As a young girl she loved climbing trees, considered “unbecoming” in girls. She had left her family and friends after graduating from college to teach at a girls’ school in Tehran for two years. She told stories of her excitement standing at the bow of the ship bound for the Mediterranean as seasick Americans groaned below deck, of crossing the desert when their car lost a wheel and the driver chasing it down on the remaining three, and of haggling with a bazaar vendor who only agreed to sell her a rug she admired when he learned she was going back to America. Returning home one year into The Great Depression, she had travelled through Russia on trains guarded by soldiers to ward off marauding gangs of teenagers hunting for food, money, and clothing.
She had been unafraid to strike out on her own and we should be unafraid also. I had a different view of Gerry’s decisions. At fifteen, I saw adults as pragmatic, willing to give in rather than stand up for ideals. Gerry was different. To me, dropping out of college and divesting of the Jaguar business demonstrated Gerry’s refusal to compromise. I was sure he wouldn’t have settled for the life my parents had chosen for themselves and me in Levittown, a ten-square-mile tract-home development in suburban Philadelphia.
Art that Gerry created in college came into our home after he dropped out. One was a watercolor painted his sophomore year. Long after Gerry disappeared I showed the painting to an acquaintance who was an established artist. She took some time to examine the work. “Nice, very nice” she said, and pointing to a highlight, a fleck of bright white that Gerry had made using a sharp instrument to expose the paper, added, “an inspired addition!” I had tried my hand at watercolor painting, discovering how difficult that medium was to master.
“Gerry was able to do anything he set his mind to,” one of his Florida friends would tell me. It was a view held by everyone I reached after his death. From a dog whittled when he was a teenager to college paintings and sculpture, Gerry used his hands to craft beautiful objects. And throughout he worked as a skilled automobile mechanic capped, I would later discover, by building and maintaining engines for Formula One racing teams.
Often on Saturdays I rode my bike across the Delaware River on the Yardley Bridge, through Trenton and on to Princeton where Gerry had moved from Manhattan after Bunny left him in 1960. He’d quit his executive job at Citroën, the French automobile company, and was now working as a car mechanic. If he did not answer his doorbell, I’d spend an hour or so browsing through the Princeton University Bookstore before biking home. Moments Preserved, the first monograph of Vogue photographer Irving Penn, was displayed on a table featuring books the store thought customers might buy as holiday gifts. Its slip case is an impressionistic photograph of a Frenchman in a row boat. I didn’t have to open the book to know I wanted it. Spending a chunk of my summer job earnings, that fall I made it mine and began poring over Penn’s photographs of novelists, poets, playwrights, painters, sculptors, and composers.
By my mid-teens I had become an observer of as well as a participant in family life. I watched my father leave the house at seven in the morning dressed in a blue suit and a Homburg hat to take the train to his job at a publishing house in Manhattan. I watched my mother make dinner timed for his return home twelve hours later. I listened during dinner to my father and mother discuss why so and so should have opened with one spade instead of two no trump at last Saturday evening’s bridge party. I wanted no part of it. Adolescent, idealistic, and unaware of the barriers artists must overcome to achieve a standing, I saw in Penn’s portraits a future loftier and more glamorous than the bridge games, tract houses, and planned streets of suburbia. I wanted to inhabit the world the portraits evoked.
One August evening when I was 17, my mother and father walked to a neighbor’s party while I lolled at home with friends. We talked of music, gossiped about high school, and shared hopes for college admission. In the middle of that night my mother shook me awake. “Your father’s having a heart attack. Go to the bedroom and sit with him while I call an ambulance.” He lay on his back, awake, his barrel chest exposed. I can’t recall my words to him. He didn’t respond. My mother returned with news that the ambulance was on its way. She helped him dress in a robe and slippers and walked him to a living room chair. Sitting, he said, “I feel better.” He lived five more days.
Until my father’s death no one close to me had died; I’d not yet begun to learn the decorum of a bereaved family. My mother, Rod, and Gerry, reserved and solemn at my father’s viewing and when friends offered their condolences, were otherwise their normal selves. I couldn’t escape my grief. Shortly after the viewing my mother told me to stop my “incessant moping” around the house. “We all are struggling with your father’s death,” she said. I changed my behavior enough to stop irritating her, but when it came time for the funeral she was not going to risk having me break down. As we waited for a car to take us to the cemetery, she handed me a tranquilizer, saying “This will help.”
Only Rod cried as my father was lowered into his grave.
Several weeks after the funeral I discovered my mother partially hidden behind the kitchen door, weeping. “What will I do? What will I do?” she asked, not me, not anyone. My father had let his employee life insurance expire. I was stunned seeing my mother, always proud of her self-reliance, defeated by my father’s disregard for her financial well-being. In that moment I knew her like never before. The boy who thought he was above our pedestrian Levittown life, the submissive yet secretly rebellious boy who would obediently down the tranquilizer she held out at my father’s burial while feeling he would never ask such a thing of anyone, that boy dropped away, opening me to a deep empathic understanding of her. She was at sea and terrified.
Shocked and frightened, I offered without conviction, “It’ll be okay.”
Regaining her composure, she replied simply, “I should start dinner.”
Following my father’s death, Gerry visited Levittown more often, sometimes staying overnight. Despite his dismissive attitude about my dream of becoming an artist, he started advising me on my drawing and painting, correcting a poorly rendered perspective or suggesting a way to better approach a subject in watercolor.
The financial disaster my mother feared was averted. Against all odds Gerry and Rod convinced my father’s company to provide the insurance proceeds, but the amount was hardly sufficient. To supplement them she started a word-of-mouth catering business serving Levittown women’s bridge parties. If the profits amounted to little, the business gave her purpose during the months following my father’s death. Perhaps catering gave her the idea that my birthday dinner should include some of my friends. She may have also wanted this birthday to be special because she’d soon be leaving to manage an Episcopal retirement home in Philadelphia. Gerry would live with me in Levittown so I could stay in my high school until graduation.
Gerry and I adjusted quickly to living together. I went to school, Gerry to work in Princeton. I shopped for meals, the frozen variety. Foreign movies became our entertainment. Seeing one often required driving an hour; local theaters didn’t show foreign films. The movies perplexed and disturbed me. What was up with Alain Renais’s Last Year at Marienbad?I couldn’t make head nor tail of it. Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, the father’s murder of his children and his suicide, wasn’t that shocking? Gerry wouldn’t offer an opinion. Instead of discussing how we felt about a movie, we’d drive back in silence, as if reaching home required intense concentration that talking would threaten.
So the weeks passed. The house lease ended the month I graduated. Gerry returned to his apartment while I arranged a summer rental of a Princeton one-room walk-up with a shared bath. Because I worked sixty to eighty hours a week, we managed to find only three Sunday afternoons to spend time together.
My internet search revealed that Gerry remarried at the age of 48 to a woman named Jean. The search results included a telephone number, but I hesitated to call. What if, when I asked her whether my brother ever spoke of me, she said, “Of course. You were the reason he left.”
It was a thought that terrified me during the first years of Gerry’s disappearance. Did he disappear because he was angry that I hadn’t sent him the seventy-five dollars from the sale of his sofa? Irrational as it is, I still feel as if I might have contributed to Gerry’s disappearance.
Reluctantly, I phoned. When I identified myself she managed, “Wow, I’ve waited for this call.” Several silent moments passed. She might have been gathering her thoughts.
“Gerry and I were married more than ten years,” she finally said. “I used to question him about his family and past. He said his mom and dad were dead and he had no other family. He told me his mom hid Jews during the war, but nothing about his dad.” Our mother hid Jews during the war? What was he talking about? Did guilt for cutting himself off from our mother lead him to make her heroic?
Jean was saying she had a job at a popular breakfast restaurant. “I was in my twenties. Gerry was 21 years older than me. He always ordered a short stack with coffee and left me a bigger tip than with any of the other girls. We were married on July 3rd at a wedding storefront with no guests.” They lived in apartments with little furniture. Gerry had no books, no photographs, nothing from his life before Jean.
“I can’t believe we slept on that old sofa bed,” she said with mild disbelief at the memory; she and Gerry had neither the money nor room for a bed. “Gerry worked as a mechanic at a couple of motorcycle dealerships. He didn’t like the management so he left for a job with a marine fabrication company. Nine or ten years into our marriage—I can’t remember exactly—he had an accident which cut off two fingers. He sued for damages and used the $35,000 settlement to buy a 15-needle embroidery machine to start his own company.”
Hurricane Andrew was the final break in their marriage, Jean said. At the time the third largest hurricane to make landfall in the United States, it hit the Florida Keys in the early morning of August 24, 1992. It churned northward and that night reached Broward County where Ft. Lauderdale is located. Although Andrew’s winds had dropped by half from its 165 miles per hour strength at landfall, witnesses described the wind as like being surrounded by fast-moving freight trains. “It was the most frightening night of my life,” she told me. “I thought I was going to die. We were together, but he offered no comfort, just telling me over and over and over to deal with it. Gerry’s domineering had been growing worse until I felt like I was being smothered. He wouldn’t let me wear lipstick or earrings. I couldn’t go grocery shopping alone. He’d wait in the car, watching me go into the store. When I went to the bathroom he stood outside the door, listening.”
A peculiar incident I witnessed when Gerry and his first wife Bunny were married suggests he had a need to control long before Jean. I was sitting on the stairs of our Levittown home looking into the living room where my father, mother, Gerry, and our mother’s sister and her husband had gathered one Saturday afternoon. Bunny walked into the room wearing jeans. Gerry looked at her a moment and then exclaimed, “Jesus! If you’re going to wear jeans, wear women’s.” Seeing that Bunny was confused, Gerry went on, “the zipper’s in the front.” Bunny had come into the room wearing men’s. “Oh Gerry, really,” my mother blurted out. Bunny looked around the room, smiled weakly, and sat down.
Several months after Hurricane Andrew, Jean filed for a divorce. “The last time I saw him was at the signing. I don’t know where he went or what he did after that. He cut all communication with me except for the monthly check I sent to cover the credit card debt we ran up on the embroidery business.”
Jean wanted me to speak with Evelyn, widow of the owner of an automobile dealership and Formula One racing team. Gerry had built and maintained the team’s engines. “When we were married,” Jean told me, “Gerry and I spent nearly every weekend with Evelyn and Paul.”
After a series of dead ends, I finally reached Evelyn. “I knew that one wouldn’t last,” she said when I told her I’d talked with Jean. “The marriage was doomed from the start. Jean was a nice girl but there was no way the marriage could survive the twenty-one-year difference between them.” Turning the conversation, I mentioned Jean shared that Evelyn and Paul were family to Gerry. “We were. He was really very good to us. He came to our all our daughter’s dance recitals. When Paul had his heart attack, Gerry hurried over and drove me to the hospital. Paul’s death was a horrible shock to Gerry.” Did Gerry ever speak of us? “He once shared with Paul that he had a relative in publishing, but nothing beyond that. Nothing about you or your brother. He was extremely private.”
Unlike Jean, speechless at hearing the voice of a brother who Gerry maintained didn’t exist, Evelyn was untroubled learning of Gerry’s estrangement until I mentioned a letter my mother wrote after two Christmases had passed without a call from him. The Salvation Army in Ft. Lauderdale had promised to deliver the letter if they could find Gerry. What my mother wrote I don’t know, but it made no difference. Gerry refused her letter. Afterward I can’t recall my mother speaking his name.
“Oh,” Evelyn almost whispered.
At the time my mother wrote her letter we were living in a kind of no man’s land, trying to find a reason for Gerry’s disappearance. We were anxious enough to believe the most improbable causes. He must have suffered a terrible accident which maimed him; he didn’t want us to see him in that condition. He’d been recruited to work for the CIA. Rod knew a man who worked underground for the agency for years. It was possible. We’d have to wait until Gerry re-emerged into civilian life. Gerry’s refusal of my mother’s letter ended our speculation as we realized Gerry had chosen to cut us from his life. There was no more we could do.
Rod adopted a laissez-faire attitude; “Gerry knows where to find me,” he said. It was his defense against a deeply disturbing realization he couldn’t deal with.
I’d grown close to Gerry through my teenage years and become closer after my father died. I couldn’t believe he could leave me. First my father, and now Gerry? I felt bereft and betrayed. Ironically, realizing that Gerry had deliberately chosen to cut us off didn’t relieve me from the thought that he might have been maimed. He had abandoned me. Was it possible that I had also abandoned him? Giving up on Gerry might have left him in need. By his silence Gerry had burdened me with nagging guilt. I hated him for it.
Years later I briefly considered hiring a private investigator but decided Gerry must have moved on; he’d be difficult if not impossible to locate. Besides, I’d come to think like Rod; Gerry knew where to find me.
During this time a brief scenario would pop into my head and start playing again and again. I was in Florida approaching Gerry’s house. I rang the doorbell and waited for the door to open. He showed no surprise on seeing me. No words were spoken. I hauled back and gave him a terrific sucker punch. The scenario, which never included his reaction, ended with me yelling, “You son of a bitch. I loved you. Why the hell did you leave me?”
The notion that I’d unleash my fury was pure fantasy. Our family didn’t get angry. We kept it all in. Voicing anger would upset the decorum of family relationships. The need to be “kind” sent our inevitable anger into subterranean chambers where it festered, erupting long after the event in accusatory letters or face-to-face expressions of disappointment to which there was no appropriate response. Because we couldn’t negotiate anger with one another, we reacted to any anger with stunned silence or by fleeing to another room, out the door, or possibly, in Gerry’s case, out of our lives.
I was beginning my second year of architecture studies at Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute in 1964 when I last saw Gerry. We’d arranged to meet at the apartment that Morris, a fellow architecture student, and I rented at the close of our freshman year. Comprising the building’s entire second floor, the apartment was a find. During our first year of studies, Pratt housed us and other male students living away from home in the Granada Hotel, twelve blocks from the college. In rain, snow, or freezing temperatures, when critiques of our projects included unwieldy large boards and scale models, the walk to and from school was murderous. Only six blocks separated our new apartment from school, and it was affordable.
I was anxious to talk with my brother about a troublesome relationship I’d begun with Mary, the third floor tenant. Morris had flown home while I’d stayed to work in Manhattan. Like Morris, other Pratt friends had left town. Friendships that developed at my job remained there, limited to sharing lunches with several coworkers at a nearby pizza joint. It was a lonely summer. I filled my evenings with rides on the Staten Island Ferry and leisurely walks along the Brooklyn Heights Promenade or over the Brooklyn Bridge. Sleep rarely came before one a.m.
Hearing a knock on my door one evening, I had been surprised to find Mary. We’d only exchanged greetings as we passed on the stairs. “This heat is ridiculous. Join me on the roof?” she’d asked. I welcomed the company. We climbed a ladder through a hatch in her bedroom. Lights from neighborhood buildings wavered in humid air. Although the sun had set several hours before, the roof held the day’s warmth, defeating our effort to cool. Suggesting we return to her apartment, Mary led the way. As I stepped into her bedroom it was clear it wasn’t only the roof’s heat that had brought us downstairs.
In August Mary moved to Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood. The semester was well underway when she called to invite me to her new digs. That weekend began Saturday visits that extended into Sunday mornings.
Exuding joie de vivre, Mary was singularly likable. She loved The Beatles and Motown and would break into pleasurable laughter when The Temptations sang “I’ve got so much honey the bees envy me.” I worked on school assignments while she painted, announcing her progress with an occasional “ah ha!” or “yes!” She enjoyed taking me with her to drop in on friends, for the most part downtown painters struggling to make their mark in the art world. That Mary cared for me was beyond question.
As I entered our apartment one afternoon, Morris greeted me, eager to share news. Our classmate, Schwartz, and Mary had spent the night together. I was stunned. The thought that she’d invite one of my friends to her bed was beyond my imagining. I was hurt and angry. I didn’t hear from Mary the following days and then weeks, and had no wish to work this out with her. In anger I was not unlike my brother.
Gerry caught the train into the city from New Jersey where he was staying with Rod and Rod’s family. He arrived dressed in dark slacks, a crisply starched dress shirt and a black bomber jacket. Florida hadn’t changed his need to dress and groom immaculately. A memory came to mind of walking with my mother behind Gerry to my father’s funeral reception. “Perfect posture, perfect clothes, perfect haircut,” she whispered to me.
Over dinner I sketched out my relationship with Mary. I valued her friendship and thought she valued mine. I knew she slept with others, but felt betrayed by her night with Schwartz. I’d stopped talking with her, yet was unhappy to have done so. Torn, I asked what I should do. “Stay away from the squirrels,” Gerry replied, offering useless advice for a young man.
I dropped him at the subway to Penn Station where he’d catch a train back to New Jersey. The following morning Gerry packed his bag, left Rod’s house, and without explanation for the sudden departure, drove back to Florida.
I still ask myself why Gerry turned his back on us. When Australian researcher Kylie Agllias asked estranged adult children why they disconnected from a parent, they spoke of shaming, scapegoating, housework and childcare beyond the normal expectations of childhood, self-centered, attention seeking and demanding parents, and manipulative, dishonest, and powerful parents. Did any of these describe our parents? Self-centered possibly. Manipulative? I asked Rod why he thought Gerry turned against us. “He had a difficult relationship with mother,” Rod offered. But we all had difficulties with our mother, her silent and frequent disapprovals, the accusations long after an offending event.
It’s occurred to me that perhaps all of us, the whole family, were the difficulty. Psychoanalyst Margaret Crastnopol’s theory of “unkind cutting back” raises that disturbing possibility. She describes the act as “a seemingly arbitrary withdrawal… often motivated by unexpressed anxiety or anger.” In cutting back one person gives another the cold shoulder, breaking off emotional engagement for a short time while remaining present. Because the reason for the disengagement is never given, the withdrawal conveys an attitude of disapproval or devaluation. A constantly repeated way of coping with anger, as it was in our family, it has severe consequences, creating a “psychic bruising that builds imperceptibly over time, little by little eroding a person’s sense of well-being.”
With his ultimate act of cutting back, Gerry may have fled our mother’s repeated silent disapproval, but neither he nor Rod nor I would escape our own habit of pulling back, shutting down, or walking away from what angered or distressed us. It’s bitter to think Rod’s laissez-faire attitude toward Gerry’s disappearance and my hesitation to hire a private investigator may have lost a chance to reunite the family. Both gave us ways to avoid a wrenching and inevitably angry confrontation. Finding Gerry might have opened the door to reconciliation instead of my imagined sucker punch.
What happened during his stay with Rod in New Jersey that may have triggered Gerry’s break with the family? In all likelihood, nothing. Estrangement develops over a long period of time rather than suddenly, according to those who have studied it. Gerry’s compulsive need to repress anger, to always present a flawless look, and to completely rule his wives’ behavior suggests feeling out of control in the family may have driven him to leave. He could repress anger and prevent his hair and clothes from becoming unruly, but in the end those with whom he was closest were beyond his command. Lasting intimacy required letting go of something that perhaps he couldn’t.
A mask mounted to a cedar root hangs on our living room wall, the vestige of a project I abandoned. My wife layered damp plaster-soaked cloth strips on my oiled face. When dried, the plaster strips created a detailed impression from which I fashioned a mask made of mulberry paper.
Among family memorabilia I found a photograph of Gerry taken for his high school yearbook. Using the photograph’s negative, I printed the portrait on the paper I had coated with photo emulsion. The two-dimensional portrait would not fit onto my three-dimensional plaster mold without disassembling it; Gerry’s mouth could not be properly placed without throwing off the nose, the eyes without throwing off the chin. So I tore the portrait into small pieces, fitting each in its appropriate spot on my face mask. I repeated this process eight times, printing Gerry’s portrait on sensitized paper, tearing the paper into small pieces, building masks of my face with Gerry’s pasted on them. I began the project as a meditation on my estranged brother. By the eighth mask I had exhausted the project. At my wife’s request I saved the one on the cedar root. The others I destroyed.
I tell visitors who comment on the mask that it’s my face, that the cedar root came from a friend who found it in the San Juan Islands. I add that a photograph is overlaid on the mask, a feature they understandably miss while standing back to take in the piece. Most of the mask is shades of ocher, the rendition of Gerry’s skin. Only his eyes and tight-lipped mouth are clearly drawn. About the Author:Christopher Harris: The attached memoir essay, “The Trouble with Gerry”, is a mystery story, my sleuthing to discover why my brother turned his back on our family for no apparent reason. I’ve tried to make sense of Gerry’s disappearance before. In a short 1980 New York Times op-ed piece I looked for answers in a Nathaniel Hawthorne tale and the Flitcraft parable in Dashiell Hammett’s Maltese Falcon, two stories of men whose estrangement is beyond explanation. I concluded my brother’s was also. At the time I was studying for a Ph.D. in American Studies at Brown University. In 2000 Routledge published “Public Lives, Private Virtues: Images of American Revolutionary War Heroes, 1782-1832”, a reworking of my dissertation. Since graduating from Brown I’ve enjoyed a career in the tech industry followed by another as an artist. The essay is my first writing since the book.