Noe Valley Voice July-August 2002

Florence's Family Album:
The Taming of My Temper (and My Older Brother)

Reminiscences by Florence Holub

An item I read long ago in the Chronicle's "Grab Bag" section helped me come to grips with the teasing I suffered as a child. It stated, "Children certainly tease one another.... The reason is that a touch of malice and amusement toward those we love keeps our affections for them from going stale."

That may be so, but in observing my nieces and nephews over the years, and in recalling my own experience, I've noted a certain imbalance: girls are usually on the receiving end of the "malice and amusement," and given the rules of the pecking order, elder siblings tend to be the teasers.

Back in the 1920s when I was growing up, there was no friction between me and my docile little brother, Warde, who was two years younger. He placidly allowed me to manage his days while our working parents were away from home.

But my older brother, whom I called "Clarie" (his full name was John Clarence), had enjoyed exclusive attention until I came along -- and since he was five years older and a good foot taller than I was, he deemed it his duty to keep his stubborn little sister in line.

Although my brothers and I were extremely fond of one another, as well as fiercely loyal, there were times when the first-born could be absolutely infuriating.

Starting when I was about 8, whenever Clarie was bored, he would find a way to create a little excitement. Choosing a moment when my back was turned, he would creep up behind me and then whip his fingers down and over my rump with such force that even through my jeans, the jab stung painfully and provoked a loud yowl. Then he would gleefully sprint away up the unpaved streets of our not-yet-developed neighborhood, with me in angry pursuit. Although I exerted every ounce of strength I had, I rarely caught up with him.

Once in a while, just for fun, Clarie would allow me to catch him, only to hold me off with one hand on my head while I kicked and swung my arms in circles like a windmill gone berserk -- never connecting with my tormentor because my limbs were too short.

These skirmishes continued for years, with each affront leaving a deposit of angry frustration. Had our parents known, they would have put an end to the squabbling. But for one of us to inform on the other would have been a traitorous violation of our code of loyalty!

It all came to a climax one day, at home after school, when I was about 11. Once again, I felt a sudden, sharp pain on my posterior -- the kind that only my brother could inflict. I jerked around to retaliate, with murder in my heart, but he had already rushed through the dining-room door, locking it behind him and laughing back at me through the French-door window panes.

Possessed by unbridled rage, I thrust my fist through the square of glass between us. As blood ran down my arm, Clarie's triumphant expression turned to one of horror.

Demonstrating his better nature, however, he immediately administered first aid and conducted me to the kitchen to wash the scratches (fortunately, superficial) under cold tap water. Next he removed the telltale splinters of glass from the pane and floor.

No one even noticed the pane was missing until weeks later, when my father replaced it, remarking, "When did this happen?" My brother and I remembered the incident only too well, but mum was the word.

Over the following months, I engaged in some serious soul-searching. Realizing that if my terrible temper were not controlled I could seriously harm myself or someone else, I resolved to repress it, to turn the other cheek, so to speak.

So the next time I was attacked, I gritted my teeth and counted to 10.

This strategy proved to be the right one. Once Clarie saw that he could no longer induce a violent reaction, he lost interest in continuing his malicious mischief and turned his energy to more fruitful pursuits.

Now in his junior year at Balboa High School, he also was making a name for himself as a fleet-footed runner on the track team. He had always shown remarkable speed, and with the encouragement of a coach and teammates, who shared the excitement of the competition, "J.C." Mickelson soon became a championship runner, winning medals and earning glowing press reviews. Sometimes I got to watch him compete, with his long easy stride that would accelerate as he neared the finish line, leaving his rivals in the dust -- as he had so often left me.

Clarie had graduated by the time I entered Balboa, and I had not experienced an angry outburst in three years, so I imagined that the fury he once inspired had disappeared. Alas, I was mistaken.

It resurfaced one day while I was climbing the central staircase, filled with students bound for the upstairs classrooms. Unexpectedly, I felt that almost-forgotten, hated swipe down my backside. My store of anger, so conscientiously repressed, welled up, erupting in a powerful swing of my right arm, which landed a resounding wallop on the cheek of the guilty hulk (not my brother) behind me.

The slapping sound attracted the attention and disapproving stares of the other students, which sent me scurrying away in embarrassment, leaving the perpetrator of the deed frozen in his tracks, his face turning crimson.

Thereafter, he kept a safe distance from me, and I could not help but notice that the rest of the boys at school also treated me with guarded respect.

And to my relief, that punch released the last of my pent-up resentment!