Billy, my oldest brother, is gone now, and from what my sister-in-law Flo told me on the phone two days ago, it may not be long before Frankie, the next oldest, follows him.
Billy and Frankie were the original odd couple. Billy was never without that lopsided grin of his and Frankie was never without a serious-looking frown.
The only thing they had in common was that they both ignored me, no doubt because eight years separated me from Frankie, and twelve from Billy.
I was just nine in 1941 when Mom hung a small red, white, and blue banner in the front window of our apartment in New York City. It had one star on it.
Billy had been drafted into the Army.
If I thought of that banner at all, it was with pride, not concern. My brother was out there in the Pacific fighting for his country. That seemed a great thing to a nine-year-old, a proud and exciting thing, not something to worry about.
It never occurred to me how Mom felt about it.
A year later, that first banner in our front window was replaced by a second one. This one had two stars on it, one for Billy and one for Frankie, who was on a troop ship headed across an Atlantic Ocean filled with Nazi U-boats hunting in wolf packs.
Never occurred to me to wonder how Mom felt about that either.
But when Mom replaced that second banner with a third one a few months later, chance stepped in and opened my eyes to the realities of the adult world.
Purely by accident, I was standing under the window as Mom hung the new banner, and when I looked up, I saw a tear running down her cheek.
Pop Johnson, my stepfather, the third star on that banner, was a marine engineer who ran the big diesel engines on a coastal steamer of some kind.
Pop usually just shipped out for a couple of weeks. I had noticed that he'd been gone for quite a long time by the day Mom that hung that third banner in the window, but being a typical dumb kid, I hadn't grasped the significance of that fact.
And I might have continued to bumble along that way except for the fact that Mrs. Baptista, the super's wife, came by just as Mom finished hanging the banner and closing the curtains.
Mrs. B said something to me that taught me more about life in ten seconds than I had learned in the ten years before them.
"Your mother's a brave woman, Tommy Garrett," she told me, eying the banner and patting me on a shoulder. "If my husband was in the Gulf of Mexico on one of those oil tankers the German subs keep sinking, and I had two sons I hadn't heard from in over six weeks I'd be crying my eyes out."
I won't say that I grew up at that moment, but something akin to it happened.
Our apartment had always been a busy, crowded place -- a place where space was at a premium, where voices sometimes echoed around the house late at night over a Monopoly or Parcheesi game, where footsteps pounded worn oak as Frankie chased Billy for putting salt in the sugar bowl, where laughter filled the air as the voice of Jack Benny, or Fred Allen, or Bob Hope emanated from the old wooden radio in the kitchen, the center of life in our home.
But when I went inside to say something to Mom--I didn't know what I was going to say then and I still don't know now--an eerie silence filled the house, a sad and forlorn emptiness.
I opened the front door and stepped into a living room which seemed larger than before. In the hallway, my heels clicked on worn oak boards, each step a hollow echo. As I entered the kitchen I opened my mouth to speak, but never got to say whatever it was I was going to say because Mom turned from a supper table with two place settings on it and said something I can still hear now.
"Thank God you're only ten."
Then she smiled, a bigger smile than usual, one I'm sure was intended to distract my beady little brain from thinking about what she had just said.
"What do you say we go to the movies tonight?" she asked me cheerfully.
After that day, Mom and I became wartime buddies.
It was summer and Mom and I ate breakfast, lunch, and supper together each day at our little metal-topped kitchen table. On some afternoons, we listened to "Old Ma Perkins," or "The Romance of Helen Trent," or some other soap opera.
On other afternoons, we listened to "The Long Ranger" or "Superman," or "I Love a Mystery."
Evenings, we listened to the radio or went to the movies, at first just on week nights but eventually even on Saturday and Sunday. We would stop on the way home at an ice cream parlor and have a sundae, or ice cream soda, or milkshake together.
It was fun for me as long as I didn't think of the reason we were together so much--and alone.
The first letter came from Frankie. He was in England, safe and sound for the moment. Then word came from Billy. He was on an island that was formerly Japanese real estate, but was now ours.
Early one morning while it was still pitch- black outside I heard a noise in the kitchen. I got up, all bleary eyed and confused, and found Mom and Pop laughing and talking.
I don't think I ever saw Mom happier than she was at that moment. I'm sure it was because Pop had made up his mind not to go to sea again.
He had an offer to run a gas station up in his hometown in Connecticut.
It was nearly three years later, One afternoon I looked out the living room window and spotted a tall, serious faced young man in an olive drab Army uniform coming up the slate sidewalk toward our house with a barracks bag on one shoulder.
Mom smiled a lot that day, too. Frankie may have been as thin as a rail and more serious-faced than ever, but he was back.
Then Billy came home, lopsided smile and all. In the middle of the night, just as Pop had done. And walking with a slight limp that I didn't remember seeing before.
But, he, too, was back home.
I sat quietly in one corner of the living room that night as Mom, and Pop, and my older brothers talked and talked--and ignored me as usual.
I didn't mind being ignored.
You can only be ignored by someone who's alive.