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Living Life Well

Living Life Well

Who he was

By Jim Shere

As I write this today, it is my brother’s birthday. His family — his children, his grandchildren, his great-grandchildren — had all prepared a memorial for him, but now it’s canceled due to the virus. Meanwhile, photographs of him from every part of his long, productive life are being posted on social media — astride his motorcycle, behind a microphone, on one of his long walks across Europe, or seated at a sidewalk cafe table nursing a drink, perhaps a martini or a glass of fernet after a satisfying meal.

Erudite, articulate, suave, and cultivated, he let himself be known as Charles Shere or, at the end of a thoughtful letter, simply CS. Our brothers John and Tim, and I, still called him Chuck despite his annoyance, because beneath all that he had become we still saw the older brother we always knew. After John and Tim died, he began calling me his last standing brother; now he too is gone, and I’m alone for the first time, even more so than after our parents’ deaths some years before.

When the last sibling has died there is an unsettling silence, and an unfathomable absence. Everyone is gone now, and there is nothing left of the people of my childhood except the photographs and memories they’ve left behind.

I am reminded of the afternoon we brought Tim’s ashes to be buried near our mother’s, high on a hill above the home Chuck had designed and built near the Russian River. That evening he brought out a bottle he had saved “for just such an occasion,” and I immediately recognized the bottle of green chartreuse I had made for him a half-century before, while exploring the arcane alchemy of liqueurs. We completely finished the bottle off that night, he and I, and wept in each other’s arms for many reasons.

A brother will feel somewhat different about a brother than others do because of the childhood shared, despite their significantly different perspectives. We brought some of Tim’s ashes to John’s home, in the small Australian town where he had settled some forty years earlier, and we three brothers stayed up late drinking brandy, talking deep into the night about what had happened over the years. It was astounding how clearly we each remembered different things about the same events, as we learned new things about ourselves and our lives. Now, those memories are mine alone to preserve.

The first-born is always an only child until the next one comes along, and tends at first to look upon the arrival of another child as an interruption of the natural order of things — until they find their new role as teacher. Chuck loved explaining things to me, loved telling me to “observe” so that I would be sure to watch him closely for an instruction. He taught me how to ride his bicycle, and how to drive the farm truck as far as the mailbox out on the county road. He always reminded me he was five years older, and already knew things I would only someday know.

Then he was grown and gone from the farm to enter the university, returning to Berkeley where we had lived during our first years, during the Second World War. I remained behind, attending school here in Sonoma County, and playing the bassoon he had played in the high school band. Then, at SRJC, I began finding myself and writing my own poetry. We did meet once, to our mutual surprise, carrying signs on the picket line during the historic 1960 House Un-American Activity Committee hearings in San Francisco. This was the first student demonstration to be met with violent suppression by the police, and the beginning of a decade of campus violence, eventually leading to the killings at Kent State in 1970.

When it was my turn to attend university, I also returned to Berkeley, but it was no longer the town of my childhood. It was now the Sixties, with all of its cultural earthquakes and their consequent tsunamis. Throughout that tumultuous decade, our paths would sometimes cross and diverge, according to our interests. He taught at Mills College, and began working at KPFA, a homegrown listenersponsored station that broadcast folk music, literary events, and discussions of world affairs. As the decade unfolded, this included reports about the increasing student resistance to the war in Vietnam, and to the Jim Crow laws of the Deep South, through which he and I took a harrowing excursion during the winter of 1963.

We met from time to time to compare notes, and to sometimes collaborate when we could find a mutual voice. He joined me in the recording of my radio play for KPFA, and set some of my writing to music. But I walked a wilder side of Berkeley than he, hung out at jazz joints on San Pablo Avenue, taught astrology at the university, and lived with some of the more lurid members of Berkeley’s alternative society. He meanwhile was helping Alice Waters open a restaurant called Chez Panisse, where his easily equal wife and life partner Lindsey served as pastry chef.

Chuck told me one evening a year or so ago that he regretted not being able to vote in the upcoming presidential election. Surprised, I asked why. This is how he let me know about his decision to terminate treatment for his cancer. A few weeks later he agreed to ride with me at the head of the annual Glen Ellen Village Fair parade, in a wagon pulled by great horses with ribbons in their braided manes, through streets filled with people waving at us as we waved at them. He asked what he should do, and I told him to blow kisses to the crowds. I was proud to have him beside me there, and although he wouldn’t blow kisses, he agreed to bear the physical pain it caused him to share that day with me.

For me, that parade crowned the life we had lived together through all those decades — triumphant, I suppose, though our struggle goes on and on, and sometimes becomes heavy with the burden of meaning. At the end of that day, he put his hand on mine as I rested it on his shoulder, and said a few words about acceptance. He also told me that letting go of the struggle did not mean the struggle is over, and that, although he was done, I was not — not yet.