“A Brother Is Born for Adversity”

Our older son, Cornel, had stamped in out of the snow for a brief visit after a late afternoon class when the call came. Automatically reaching for the phone, as he had done so often before his recent marriage, he listened briefly, asked, “Where are you?” and began to zip up his parka, still beaded with melting snow. He said, “Okay,” and hung up.

To our questioning looks he answered simply, “Ryan can’t get his car started and needs a push.” At the door he suddenly grinned and said, “I wonder if every family gets as much mileage out of Proverbs 17:17 as we do.”

Proverbs 17:17 [Prov. 17:17]: “A friend loveth at all times, and a brother is born for adversity.” Reflecting on the blessed willingness with which our children now assumed responsibility for one another, I thought of my own brothers and my mother’s unflagging determination to have us sense what each family member should mean to every other.

I can’t remember the first time my mother said to me, “He’s your brother,” but I do remember how this phrase plucked at my childish self-absorption. Total sharing with my brothers was simply expected. After half a century, I still recall vividly how surprised my mother always acted when I asserted that one of the toys my older brother, Bill, or younger brother, Boyd, was playing with was “mine.” Without discounting my ownership in the least, she stressed how many more toys we all three had access to if we thought of them as commonly available. Then, her eyes sparkling, she told me how exciting it was to share rather than simply own. Even the way she said “own” made me understand that it was a poor second choice. How embarrassing to merely own when one could share!

I’m sure I was less than persuaded the first time I heard this comparison, but Mother knew that children set attitudes much earlier than many suppose, and long before I was in school I was convinced that sharing was not only fun but should be assumed. I suspect it took my brothers longer to believe in total sharing, since they rarely broke toys while I seemed to damage or destroy almost everything I touched.

Yet I early learned that sharing is as much responsibility as it is opportunity. I was about six years old when I carelessly dropped my older brother’s steam engine and broke its cast iron base. Looking at the little brass boiler—bright from repeated polishing but now listing hopelessly—I suddenly remembered that this was his favorite toy. Later, as Bill pulled the ruins of his engine out from under the pile of toys I had “given” him as a desperate recompense, he didn’t cry—at almost ten he felt he was too old to cry—but my mother’s quiet “He’s your brother, Billy” not only knotted my guilty heart, it filled me with mighty resolve that I wouldn’t exploit him again. I never have.

As my brothers and I grew older, we became so sensitized to one another that I honestly can’t remember a single argument over who would wear the one overcoat we owned in those deep depression days or who got to use the battered old family car on Saturday night. We all knew whose need or desire was greatest in a given circumstance, and the other two simply backed out tactfully. In retrospect, this process appears unworkably ideal, but it did work because no one abused it, and—as Mother had predicted—the practical result was that our resources in time of greatest need were always three times what we would have had alone.

When Bill and I decided we would like to go to college, we found it would take almost all we had saved since graduation from high school to pay the modest tuition required at the state university located about one hundred miles from our home. On a visit to the campus we did locate a place where we could get board and room for 20 dollars a month apiece but, to our dismay, found that even part-time jobs at less than 25 cents an hour had many takers. The fact that Bill and I had graduated at the top of our high school classes apparently did not qualify us for the few scholarships available; our mother was undergoing expensive medical treatment (she would die within the year), and our father’s small coal mine, still under development, could not be counted on for consistent support. Our determination to attend college seemed hopelessly blocked.

Then Boyd, who was still in high school and a truly extraordinary student, came home to announce that a local transfer company had offered him a job as bookkeeper for their entire operation at a salary of 40 dollars a month. He would have to work long hours after school and all day Saturday, but I can still hear the delight in his voice as he said, “Now Bill and Bob can go to school.”

How our parents and brother managed to send us the 40 dollars we needed each month I still can’t figure out; but, obviously, most of it came from Boyd. My guess is that he spent almost nothing on himself to be sure we had what we needed. Happily, over the years, Bill and I have had a chance to help Boyd, but the very essence of total sharing is that there is no attempt to balance the books. Gifts of pure love are never a sacrifice, and losing one’s life completely in the service of others is to find it completely. Now, after all these years, I understand the deeper meaning of what Mother was trying to instill in us: Unconditional love within the family can prepare us to appreciate the Savior’s gift of eternal life, for he is our brother.

[illustration] Illustrated by Fred Harrison