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Middle men

by Brian Clarey

The middle child sat at the computer while his older brother had his first shave in the bathroom around the corner; I took the oldest son through his manly paces: the hot towel, the lotion, the strange facial contortions ones makes to the mirror to maximize contact between skin and blade. It was something of a moment for the both of us — me as a parent and him as a young man.

“I heard you teaching him to shave,” the Middle Child said from his perch, staring back at the monitor that painted his face a sallow green.

“Yeah,” I said. “He needed it. When you’re ready, I’ll teach you to shave, too.”

He signaled his acceptance of this situation with a practiced shrug: The Middle Child rarely gets to go first, but his time will come.

To be in the middle is to be shoehorned into a role, the performance of which is constantly weighed against the siblings. The Middle Child is the bridge, the facilitator, the peacekeeper, yet, somehow, also the rebel, the outsider, the cynic — that is, if you believe the pop psychologists. And I do… because I’m a Middle Child, too, and I understand what he’s going through.

This column could easily have been about his brother, whose first scrapes of a razor against the whisper of whiskers on his upper lip would have provided ample fodder for this space. But the firstborn is easy to write about — he’s the one blazing the trail for all of us, including my wife and me as parents, with his ongoing, and sometimes painful, development. It all comes from the undeniable power of being first.

And as I’ve said, the Middle Child rarely gets to go first. In the past year, he’s seen his big brother break all sorts of new ground: middle school, romantic intrigue, the thousand indignities and unformed urges that puberty imposes. And now the shave. Meanwhile the Middle Child undoubtedly feels stuck in the netherground between the bliss of his childhood and the uncertainty that comes with those first flushes of adult life. He always feels a couple steps behind. He always will.

I felt the boy’s pain years ago, when, in a diaper, he lost it in the driveway because he assumed he would be going to school with his older brother on the first day of kindergarten. As he’s grown, I’ve seen him work to carve himself an identity separate from his big brother and little sister. And I understood his grim acceptance of the shaving lesson.

I took him with me for a day last week, when school was out and my workload light — just the two of us, middle children both, on a sunny day with a half a tank of gas and a few bucks in my pocket. The Middle Child — the younger one — wore jeans ripped at the knees, worn before him by his older brother and a teenage cousin before that. His sneakers had known other feet before his. The shirt was his own, due mainly to the fact that he has not kept up the same growing schedule as his brother, the first.

We worked up an appetite at the Weatherspoon Art Museum, where my Middle Child marveled at the sculpture of Diana Al-Hadid, particularly “At the Vanishing Point,” a diorama atop a melting pedestal with decaying columns and a rustic staircase rising at the rear of the box.

He paced around the piece once, then said, “I would like to climb inside that thing, no matter how much I know I can’t.”

We ate frozen custard for lunch, played pinball for an hour or so then hit the air-hockey table at the new coffee shop in Lindley Park. The Middle Child built a castle with blocks and surrounded it with a cage made of Tinkertoys.

“Is this what you do at work all day?” he asked me. “No,” I said. “Just today.” Every middle child knows what it is to watch someone else feel special. Every middle child is born knowing he is part of a group. Every middle child wants to be noticed… except when he doesn’t.

And every middle child knows that his day will come. After the shaving lesson, the Middle Child accompanies me on the weekend round of errands, and in the afternoon we clear a long dormant gardening patch to the rear of the yard. One by one, we plant by hand a few haphazard rows of sunflowers in three varieties then soak the ground in which they lay.

His mother says if we water them and feed them, talk to them once in a while and otherwise let them do their thing, they’ll be in full bloom by summer.

But we already knew that, he and I.

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