Bittersweet Fruit

By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 7, 2008


Just before Marie Brenner's brother died, he tried to eliminate as many traces of himself as possible.

He schlepped his computer's hard drive to the dump. He spent hours erasing entries from his calendar. No correspondence that so much as hinted at intimacy would be left for his only sibling to find after he shot himself in the spring of 2003 -- just a solitary letter placed on a shelf in his San Antonio home.

"Dear Marie," the letter began. "You will find everything you need on these shelves."

She found them bare.

Brenner writes about those empty shelves in her new family memoir, "Apples & Oranges." It is tempting to read them as a metaphor for a lifelong failure to communicate -- a final statement by her 55-year-old brother, Carl, that their differences were too fundamental for her even to try to understand him.

That's not how his little sister sees it, however. For her, trying was everything.

Ever since Carl wrote to her in November 1999, informing her that he had lung cancer, she had done her best to reach across the gaps of personality, geography, family history and belief that divided them. "It was hugely important to me," she says. "When you're a sibling, you are connected in ways that you don't even understand."

So never mind the psychological flak jacket she had to put on before even attempting to deal with Carl. And never mind what she calls the "mixed results" of her efforts, which didn't exactly end with "a Hallmark Theater embrace."

There was a hole in her life, she says. What could she do but try to mend it, before it was too late?

* * *

The hole Brenner is talking about was the kind with which innumerable brothers and sisters -- or parents and children, for that matter -- can empathize.

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