My Little Brother

Harold Goldstein

My little brother Martin was five years younger than I--probably a long enough span so that my displacement as the adored center of the universe did not come too hard. At any rate, I recall no feelings of jealousy; it's possible, Dr. Freud tells us, they were there, but carefully repressed.

In any family, of course, incidents occur that could be interpreted that way. When he was two or three, the two of us used to dance around the dining room table to the music of Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries" played on the phonograph, an old contraption that opened at the top after one carefully removed the plaster cast of the Venus de Milo which normally stood on the cover. One day I happened to be armed, like all Valkyries, with a BB-gun, and at some climax in the music I shot it off. The BB hit Marty in the forehead, not far from an eye, and lodged in the skin, where it could be easily removed. Nevertheless, our mother took umbrage at the incident, and I lost control of the air rifle and, I'm sure, got other punishment as well; my father's favorite corrective measure was the leather strop on which he sharpened his razor.

I recall no other incidents from our early childhood; Freud tells us the most unbearably guilty memories are most successfully repressed. Marty tells me he remembers having been taught to read by his benevolent elder brother. It was the last thing I could teach him; he soon enough caught up and surpassed me in the intellectual department. When he was around eight or ten, he became fascinated by what we later learned were called mathematical progressions, a seemingly simple idea that leads to mathematical profundities. An example of a progression is the series of prime numbers--numbers divisible by no number other than 1, that is: 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, 17, 19, 23, etc.--but there are other progressions as well, and Marty found one that he played with, and called "nabometry," at an age when most children are collecting cards with pictures of baseball players. (If you want to know what mathematical profundities such progressions lead to, you'll have to ask someone other than me.)

My impact on Marty continued to be benevolent, with a few lapses that are seared into my memory. Once, when he had a stomach upset and our good Dr. Cohen came (this was back in the days when every family's good Dr. Cohen made house calls), the doctor decided that Marty needed a dose of castor oil, a favorite remedy in those days. He wrote a prescription for a castor oil cocktail, a concoction in which the awful taste of the castor oil was partly disguised by some sweeteners. (Later generations who were spared the castor oil experience by the progress of medicine should know that what made Mussolini's fascist regime in Italy most repugnant was their use of castor oil to torture their victims.) I was sent to the drug store with the prescription. Now I was used to going on family errands to stores, and I had long been enjoined to tell the people in the store, whether a fruit and vegetable store or a bakery, that what I was buying was for Mrs. Goldstein, on the supposition that they would pick the very best for her. So when the pharmacist asked me whom the prescription was for, I answered as I had been trained. The pharmacist compounded accordingly, and when the medication was given to my sick little brother, he experienced the most gruesome torture fascism could devise, in an adult dose.

One other incident sticks in my mind. We kids used to play around the apartment house where we lived. Leading to an inner courtyard was a passageway separated from the street by a wrought iron fence about eight feet high, with a swinging wrought iron gate. One day, when Marty was about six years old, a bunch of us were playing around the fence, climbing on the gate and opening and closing it. The top of the gate had decorative spear-points. As my little brother and several other children climbed on the gate, others, including myself, pushed the gate closed. I looked up and saw that Marty had climbed to the top of the gate, and as it closed his head had been forced down by a horizontal bar above the gate, so that a spear point on the gate was pushed into his left eye.

He cried out. In horror, I opened the gate so he could raise his head and free it from the spear point. The eye was bleeding. We helped him down from the fence and I carried him upstairs in anguish and guilt. When I told my mother what had happened, she grabbed him up and started for the local doctor's office, crying that I had killed her child, which added to my guilt. So there we walked, Mom in front, carrying the victim and telling me what I had done, and I trailing behind, overcome with remorse. It is one of my worst memories.

It turned out that only the skin around the eve was penetrated, the eye itself was undamaged, and I had not succeeded in killing my little brother that time.

He grew up, and followed in my footsteps five years behind. We went to the same high school, Townsend Harris, and we both went to City College. But there were differences. In my freshman year at college I failed mathematics and had to take it s second time, earning a grade of D. Marty won a silver medal in mathematics at City College. I got through the required year of chemistry with a C; Marty earned a PhD in chemistry. More than anything else, Marty survived having a brother who had read Freud and isn't sure he hasn't acted on what he had read.