Yet as a small child I sensed little of their grief. Jimmy was talkative and could ask a hundred questions: Where's my Davy Crockett hat? Can I make Jell-O? Did you see the Sauers got a riding mower? When's Grandma coming? Unlike families whose children know what they don't know and are filled with longing for what they cannot have, Jimmy wasn't self-aware enough to complain. That, in its way, was a gift, and it saved us.
My mother wanted our lives to orbit around Jimmy's, which turned her into a manic Martha Stewart and my already sweet-tempered father into a saint. It made me uncommonly devoted at first — I liked being in the thick of things, my brother's protector, my parents' fallback, my own counsel — but remote and rebellious later. I was a bookworm by nature, but "sticking my nose in a book" when I could be joining in kneading bread, banging in stakes for the tomato plants, making pottery, or holding up a piece of knotty-pine paneling for my mother to measure was discouraged.
In the morning, my mother would try to teach Jimmy practical things: how to brush his teeth (that was successful), tie a tie (that wasn't), or put a belt through his pant loops (a semisuccess: back loops, no; front loops, yes). Since she was so much more intelligent than the tasks at hand, my mother restlessly gave over her afternoons to organizing the Altar Guild, halfheartedly learning bridge and generally bending the house to her will, including the walls and pipes.
Neither of my parents was born handy with tools, yet my mother was reluctant to hire a carpenter or a plumber, so my father became bad at both. After we moved from a row house in Washington to a Cape Cod in Camp Hill, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Harrisburg, my mother nagged my father into laying flagstone for a patio, then screening in the flagstone patio, then putting a door between the kitchen and the porch. One day I came home from school to find that my mother had knocked out the new door and wall entirely and maneuvered the table around the remaining studs onto the porch. What had once been a patio was now, apparently, a dining room. She announced we would be eating there from then on. It was summer, so my father had time to rough in windows and install insulation before the first frost.
We didn't eat on that porch for long. As soon as it was finished, it filled with equipment: a pottery wheel and a kiln for my mother's pots, a sewing machine (and a dress form), gardening tools (we grew tomatoes, peppers, zucchini, and onions), and a stack of oven bricks to make her homemade bread rise properly. Mom did not work alone. "Are you sick?" she would ask, feeling my forehead for a fever if she caught me sitting down. She lined three walls of the basement with shelves filled with enough canned goods to survive six months. She built a long sewing table with slots underneath for bolts of fabric she got wholesale. She bought a deep freezer at a garage sale, so she would no longer be constrained in her baking by what we could consume in a day. Had the nuclear catastrophe we crouched under our desks in preparation for come to pass, the neighbors would have rushed to our house.