My brother and I are accustomed to the quiet. We can spend hours together in his apartment when I am visiting for a few days, and barely speak a few dozen words. We will watch ball games on the widescreen, or movies, or maybe bowl a few games on the Wii. Joe doesn’t like to go out to dinner much, and so we often will get takeout sushi or pizza or Chinese.
On Sundays, we drive to the racetrack near Joe’s apartment and spend the afternoon playing the ponies, frequently meeting up with cousin James. I enjoy the times that I get to spend with Joe a lot, and am pretty certain that he enjoys them, too. Whenever I set out on the 300-mile drive back home after these visits, I am always very saddened to leave my brother behind.
There were times, when we were younger, that the silence between us was not so pleasant. The youngest of three brothers, Joe was long saddled with responsibilities that did not at all belong on his shoulders. Most related to caring for our aging mother for many years, while Mike and I built lives of our own elsewhere. Tensions between Joe and me grew to alarming heights on several occasions back then, surely resulting from inequities in how our family’s burdens had been divvied up. I never blamed my brother for feeling anger toward me, or for not having much to say to me when I was around. I’m only glad that things got better between us, and that the quiet no longer is filled with resentment but with fondness and love. I just couldn’t bear it another way.
Joe and I aren’t the only brothers who know silence. I was reminded of this just before driving down to see Joe for the holidays. I was watching the 1996 indie film "Big Night." If you're not familiar with it, it’s about two brothers, Secundo (Stanley Tucci) and Primo (Tony Shalhoub), who emigrate to the United States from Italy in the 1950s. They own a restaurant together, but it is failing and only weeks from foreclosure. A special all-night dinner event promises to save the business from being shuttered, but doesn't. Instead, the brothers have a terrible altercation, verbally and then physically attacking one another before each runs off in the early morning hours.
The final scene may be the simplest, most poignant moments ever captured on film. And there aren’t a dozen words spoken in its 5 minutes and 9 seconds.
Back in the restaurant’s kitchen, Secundo is preparing scrambled eggs in a hot pan filled with olive oil. When his brother appears, neither says a word to the other. Secundo simply places cooked eggs in a plate and rests it next to his own plate so that his brother can sit and eat next to him. Soon the brothers reach out and hold each other but not a word is spoken.
Just a couple mornings after watching the movie, I was sipping coffee in my brother’s living room, glad to see that he’d decided not to go to work on Christmas Eve.
“How about I make you some of my famous pancakes?” Joe said, between what appeared to be successful online poker matches.
I should mention that there is a lot that I don't know about my brother, possibly due to those years when we did not gravitate toward one another so easily. How he came to take up the game of golf has always mystified me, for example. Where he learned to handicap thoroughbred racing so expertly, or NFL football games so surprisingly well, I have never entirely understood either. What allowed him to believe, albeit very briefly and early last spring, that the Mets might have a shot at a respectable 2013 season? That I shall never, ever know.
I certainly had never before heard about any “famous pancakes,” and soon after tasting them I was appalled by the oversight. These were the lightest, fluffiest, most melt-in-your-mouth delicious pancakes that I have ever eaten in 56 years on this Earth.
“Where’d you learn how to do that?” I asked, finishing my stack and looking to see if any batter was left in the bowl that Joe was working from. “And how come you never made these for me before?”
“I just did make them for you, wiseguy,” Joe told me. “And there’s nothing to it. A cup Aunt Jemima pancake mix, three-quarters of a cup of milk, an egg … Oh, and about two tablespoons of olive oil. In a red-hot pan. Very important, the olive oil and the hot pan."
I couldn’t help but recall Secundo’s frying his brother’s eggs in hot olive oil, but didn’t mention this to Joe.
"That's it," Joe said pouring another three pancakes' worth of his magical mix into the sizzling pan. "Be sure to use an electric mixer, too. Makes a big difference. Fluffier that way."
I wondered whether Joe was holding out on me, keeping his secret recipe to himself. The olive oil wasn't exactly what you'd expect to find listed on the recipe panel of a mass-market dry mix box. But could it really propel Jemima to such greatness? After a few days of pondering, and an unsuccessful attempt to recreate Joe's perfect pancakes in my own kitchen, I believed that I had arrived at an answer. And it wasn't the olive oil. Or the sizzling-hot pan. Or even the electric mixer.
My brother, you see, is simply the type of guy who does things well or not at all. It's probably the reason why so many people depend on him. He is smart and strong and very, very able. His heart is good. When an emergency of any magnitude arises in our rather extended family the one guy at the very top of everybody's wish list for aid and comfort isn’t me or Mike or any of the other 40-odd able-bodied men and women in our clan. It’s Joe.
I don’t think that I have actually told my brother how highly I think of him. That might require more words than we are accustomed to sharing with each other at a given time.
I’ll just have to figure out another way to tell him.