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It's my brother Mack's birthday. He's fourteen. We're all sitting at the table in the dining room. The curtains are drawn, though you can see the glint of summer evening light through the cracks. When my mother rounds the corner from the kitchen with the glowing cake, we burst into ragged song.
Heaped next to Mack's place on the table are his opened presents odd homemade things from me and my younger sisters; but a nice sweater my mother gave him on behalf on my other brother, and three Roy Orbison forty-fives from my older sister, Liddie. You can also see the neck of the guitar my parents have bought him, leaning against the table's edge. It seems to me that color rises to Mack's face as we sing to him, though perhaps it's just the soft light from the candles that makes him look this way young, and suddenly sweet and shy. When my eyes meet his, I'm embarrassed; I feel a catch in my voice.
The moment we've finished the song, Mack leans forward and blows the candles out. In the silent twilit aftermath of our applause, my other brother my autistic brother, Randall speaks. "Happy birthday, dear Mackie," he says.
We are all silent, and then Liddie, the oldest, laughs, "My God!" she says. "Did you hear him? My God!"
"I wouldn't get excited, Lydia," my father says. "That's about his annual quota of words, isn't it?" And my mother's face, which has turned in astonishment to her younger son in the dim light, instantly drops. My father changes the subject; someone gets up to pull back the curtains on the windows, to let what'sleft of the daylight in.
This is the way I remember it. But I'm wrong.
My mother tells me he never spoke after the age of four or so. My sister Liddie says it's her memory, her story, one she told me much later. I've appropriated it, she says, the way I do with everything in our family's history. I've changed it to suit myself made myself older, an observer, when in reality I was an infant when it happened, and Mary and Sarah weren't even born.
And yet. And yet it seems as clear to me as a picture I might have taken. I could swear this was exactly what happened.
But that's the way it is in a family, isn't it? The stories get passed around, polished, embellished. Liddie's version or Mack's version changes as it becomes my version. And when I tell them, it's not just that the events are different but that they all mean something different too. Something I want them to mean. Or need them to. And of course, there's also the factor of time. Of how your perspective, your way of telling the story of seeing it changes as time passes. As you change.
Now, for example, I see that we must always have known, my younger sisters and I, that we hadn't been wanted or planned, that there was something complicated and painful for our parents in our very existence. But what we would have said then was just that there were too many of us, too many children in our family. So this might be one place to start my version of our story: how we felt about ourselves, in our world, where every house spilled kids into the Chicago street.
Most of them spilled two or three, though. Four was a little excessive. Five absurd. And there were six of us. Six meant something different, a special case in some way. Catholic. Or a man who couldn't keep his hands off his wife. A neurotic breeder of a woman. People would ask, "Six of you?" and yes never seemed a sufficient answer. Occasionally I would say of myself and my younger sisters, "Well, we're the extras," passing along one of our father's nicknames for us without understanding it as though it might answer the question. And sometimes it seemed to. "Oh!" the questioner would say. "Yes."
Certainly even then we thought of the family as neatly divided down the middle. The first three, Macklin, Lydia, and Randall, were the special ones. Even those names, we thought, showed greater imagination, greater involvement on our parents' part, than ours did: Nina, Mary, Sarah. Clearly by that time they had run out of gas.
But we didn't necessarily connect any of this with our father's nicknames for us. These were embarrassing not because of what they meant which none of us stopped to consider then anyway but because they existed at all. Not because they pointed to some quality we shared, but because they pointed to us. He called us "the unexpected guests," or "the surprise party." He would lower his book and watch us as we pal passed his study door, the three of us always together. Under his high, narrow forehead, his blue eyes had the trick that eyes in certain portraits or photographs do, of seeming to follow you while actually remaining steady, unmoving. "There they go, the extras," he'd say. Or, "Ah, the fleet's in. The Nina, the Pint-sized, the Santa Maria." We were "the little pitchers of health," "the coup de grace," "the last straws." We complained and laughed and whined about it, we told our mother, but it only made him worse.
"Pay no attention to him," Mother said when she was in a good mood. But when she was in the dumps, her mouth went tight. She would turn away from him quickly in anger. She'd pick up again whatever she was drinking cold, milky coffee, flat beer, an inch or two of something brown and sticky in the bottom of a glass.
Family Pictures. Copyright © by Sue Miller. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.