I once had an uncle who collected grocery store encyclopedias. His name was Royden, and he lived with his older brother, Harold, on a hardscrabble farm in northern Iowa that they, along with my father, had inherited from their father. Harold suffered from schizophrenia and was often agitated and even violent in his youth; only Royden could settle him down. When Royden went off to the war in 1942, the family was forced to commit Harold to a state mental hospital, where the treatment du jour was shock therapy. During the 3 years that Harold lived in the hospital, he apparently received dozens of such treatments, administered then without benefit of sedation or muscle relaxants. Fractures were not uncommon as a result of the brutal convulsions; limbs and even spines sometimes snapped. Somewhere we have a fading photograph of Harold taken by a visiting relative during those years. He resembled many victims of the war: gaunt, spectral, and haunted, an ill-fitting set of institutional pajamas sagging from his sloping shoulders and his bony hips. At a glance, one might mistake him for a prisoner of war, perhaps, or even one of the damned from Treblinka or Auschwitz.
Harold was released from the hospital at the war’s end and returned home to the farm, as did Royden after his discharge from the Army Air Corps, where he had served his country well as the master crew chief for a squadron of B-26 bombers. My grandparents, Elmer and Regina, and my father, Donald, lived together on the farm with "the boys," which the family called Harold and Royden rather patronizingly. Townspeople knew them as the "Budweiser twins."
The boys drank prodigiously, both alone and with various brothers and nephews. My grandparents didn’t last long after the war, dying within a year of each other, and my father eventually left the farm to pursue his career and marry. According to family lore, Grandpa Elmer issued a death-bed directive to Royden to take care of Harold "forever" so that he wouldn’t have to be warehoused in an asylum again. While I hate to think that my own grandfather could have been so blinkered as to condemn one son to a life of near-servitude in order to spare another from his illness’s grim fate, that is exactly what happened. The twin strands of kindness and cruelty implicit in such an entreaty were braided together to form a veritable noose.
Royden didn’t literally stick his head through a loop of rope and drop from a milking stool, but he might have been kinder to himself if he had. Instead, he drank barrel upon barrel of whiskey over the next 20 years until his liver gave out and he yellowed and died. I knew him passably well while he was living and was mostly embarrassed by him, I’m sorry to say. He and Harold grew grizzled, stout, and poor, cruising the streets of my hometown in one old pickup or another, each wearing a shapeless, grimy billed cap and a timeworn pair of overalls. Occasionally, they’d stop by our house reeking of booze and looking for my father, and my mother would set her jaw firmly and shoo them off, and they’d shamble back to their truck with its sputtering engine and return home trailing a dense blue miasma of defeat and shame. Or so it seemed to me.
At family gatherings, my aunts would "tsk-tsk" and proclaim how sad it was that Harold was so sick and Royden was such a drunk and that each had had such promise when younger, Royden in particular, who was said to have been kind and smart and handsome and capable. "He loves so to read," one aunt would say. "He always loved to read," another would add.
This much I could believe, as I had proof of it myself. Sometimes my brothers and I would go along with my father when he went to visit the boys. The farmhouse was in near ruins, but I enjoyed going inside it nevertheless, especially in winter, as Harold and Royden kept the heat on high, stoking the kitchen stove until a tropical steaminess hung heavily in the air. This gave us reason, by and by, to dash outside to the pump house, where we’d cool ourselves off by working the pump handle hard until well water gushed forth into a dipper from which we drank, rejoicing in its icy iron taste and declaring it the best water in the world.
It was after one such trip that Royden showed me his encyclopedias. My brothers weren’t with me that day, and I was bored as my father reminisced about the old times. The pump wasn’t nearly as fun to use by myself, and I soaked one of my sleeves trying to fill the dipper. I was cold and grumpy from being wet and I wanted to go home. I went to tell my father this, but he shushed me because he was deep in conversation and motioned me away. I sulked as I sat down next to a small bookcase and looked at the rank old volumes that must have belonged to my grandparents, some written in Norwegian even and none interesting to an 11-year-old—except for the books on the bottom shelf.
"Hey, we have these at home!" I said.
"Have what?" Royden asked. He rose from his chair and came over and knelt down beside me.
"These Funk & Wagnalls encyclopedias," I said. "They used to sell a different volume each month at the Red Owl store. You got a discount if you bought $20 worth of groceries. I love reading them."
"Me, too," Royden said. "I’ve read them many times."
"All except volume 13. I missed out on buying that one."
"That’s too bad," I said. "Hey, maybe you could borrow our volume 13 sometime and read it."
"I’d like that," Royden said. "I’ve often wondered what was in it."
"It’s neat that you’ve read everything else, though."
"I’ve got a lot of time on my hands," Royden said.
I don’t suppose it’s surprising that I never followed through with lending Royden the missing volume, but when he died a few years later, I remembered that day and my promise, and I felt bad about not keeping it. His was the second funeral I’d ever attended, and if I recall correctly my father donated an old suit for his dead brother to wear. Royden didn’t look very good in it because he was jaundiced and puffy, and his casket had a white pillowy interior that seemed incongruously feminine and comfortable for somebody who’d led such a straitened and bibulous life. But at least Harold’s schizophrenia seemed better, whether thanks to time or to the effects of Royden’s solicitude; he projected an air of amiable aloofness at the funeral that became very familiar to me over the remaining two decades of his life as I got to know—and like—him well.
An image from those encyclopedias sticks with me still. It was a drawing of an enormous urn that contained the remains of some prehistoric human who was curled into the fetal position. I believe the gist of the accompanying article had to do with the ubiquity of burial rites in cultures both ancient and modern. How we strove to preserve the memory of those who we knew and loved. How life seemed too impossibly beautiful and precious for it to be extinguished forever. How our species’ earliest stabs at ritual and art and religion often crystallized out of our need to comprehend grief and prevent it from destroying us. How that which is unique to us—our sentience—is the ultimate source of both our sorrow and joy.
Sometimes I try to imagine what Royden would think of this drawing had he seen and read about it. I hope it wasn’t located in volume 13.
Address reprint requests to Dr. Twito, Psychiatry, Allina Medical Clinic, Northfield, MN; firstname.lastname@example.org (e-mail).