Brotherly Advice. Four tidbits that guided me through life.

And Then There Were Five

On Mother’s Day, 2021, my brother Robert was killed in a vehicle/train accident. It was a rural gravel road crossing and in my own mind, Robert was probably thinking of the group of friends he was going to join, the evening ahead, the farm work that needed to be done, how nice the yard looked after he stayed to mow it, how beautiful the valley ahead of him looked with the sun low in the west casting long shadows.

It may have been the low sun that blinded him of the fact an eastbound train was headed his way. He may have been looking at the two kids driving towards him off in the distance that distracted him. We will never know. What we do know is that in a split second, the world shifted, and he left a whole bunch of people bereft and bereaved.

Rather than focus on sadness, I want to dwell on four pieces of advice Robert gave me that I have lived by. It may seem funny that a brother who used to torture me to tears, beat me up with boxing gloves, and beat me playing war games with the Buechler boys, would give me life advice that was actually useful; but he did—probably unwittingly–but nevertheless, he helped me navigate life even when he wasn’t physically with me.

Quit following me!

Robert and I were the two youngest of eight kids. One year when I was around 8 and Robert was 11, we were at the Montana Winter Fair in Bozeman. Our parents were active in the Montana Wool Growers Association. Mom and Dad, probably because they had no babysitters, took us to a Wool Grower’s cocktail hour. He and I were in the room with adults who were chatting and drinking. We walked in with our folks and I didn’t know what to do. Mom and Dad started chatting and visiting with people. There were no other little kids. So, Robert started walking around the room. I stayed by his side. He would poke his head into one cluster of adults, and so would I. He backed away and moved to another group. So did I. He went back to where our folks were. So did I. Finally, he turned to me, eyeball to eyeball and said, “QUIT FOLLOWING ME.”

I was shocked. I didn’t even realize I had been following him, I just didn’t know what else to do.

I’m not stupid. I quit following him, though I continued to emulate what he was doing. On my own I began moving from group to group, watching, listening, observing. The evening passed. No other incident occurred.  

Little did I know his rebuff would change the way I work a party to this day. I don’t follow anyone. I mix and mingle on my own. Sometimes I will see a person alone and bring them under my wing—I know what it’s like to be at a party alone. If I do go with another person, I don’t feel like we have to work as a pair: if we work solo, we can cover more ground. We may swap notes throughout the evening, we may split and come together during the night, but I like to work alone.

And I don’t follow anyone.

You can’t live off love.

My first real high school romance happened when I was sixteen. I fell for the foreign exchange student from Sweden. It was fast and furious, since it started in April and ended with his departure for home in June. I was smitten. I didn’t know any person could have the intense feelings I had from that first true love.

I told myself to get a grip. To suck it up. To build a wall to protect myself. But love has a mind of its own, and once I began falling, there was no anti-gravitational mechanism to stop the plunge.

At the dinner table, as I pushed my food around my plate mooning about my boyfriend, Robert turned to me, without preface or warning and teased, “You can’t live off love.”

I was mortified! How could he see through me? How did he know? He said it in front of our parents—so they knew too!!  I had worked so hard to maintain a calm façade.

Little did I know that the world around me had been in the same place, in parallel universes at different times.

His words, even though borrowed from others wiser than us, proved true. I have fallen in love many times, some as intensely as the first time. And always the practical world has played a part in the sustainability of the relationship. Love is primal, but I live in the real world, and the competing needs of myself, my partner and the world around me have impacted every relationship I have ever had. And while love is the key ingredient, the body and soul need more—proximity, interests, common goals, respect—to thrive.

You can party all night.

These last two tidbits of advice came as Robert and I were feeding the sheep before school. When I was a sophomore in high school, I had access to a pretty cool car, a farm gas pump to fuel it from, and time. We would “drag main” until all hours of the night—cruising the same two-mile strip from the A&W on the west end of town to the Safeway store on the north end of Center Avenue. I won’t go into what we did with all this time—you can let your imagine run wild—but some nights I didn’t get home until the wee hours.

After one of these late night/early morning outings, I was slow getting out to the barn to help feed. Robert was already working. He turned to me as I was dragging a burlap bag of feed and my ass. He said, “You can party all night if you want to, but wake up in the morning and show up on time.” He didn’t have to tell me twice.

I have kept this advice close to me throughout my corporate and entrepreneurial career. I did like to party all night. In sales, there were many client entertainment duties that involved late nights/early mornings and a fair amount of drinking. But I ALWAYS woke up in the morning and showed up on time. Robert’s advice probably saved my career more than once, and I am thankful for that.

Anyone can make it through college.

Robert was a state wrestling champ and all-around great athlete. He had recruitment letters from colleges around the state and nation. I remember him saying he wanted to go to Gonzaga University in Spokane, known more recently for their NCAA Division 1 basketball success. But college wasn’t big on our dad’s list of life ambitions. He was the kind of guy who believed people skills were more important than book smarts. So Robert went to Montana State University at Bozeman for one wrestling season.

After he came home to the farm, we were in the livestock corral and talking about his college experience. He knew he was going to make his life farming. I knew I didn’t have the farm as a fall back and needed to learn a trade or go to college. He was talking about the fun he had, the wrestling program and the tough competition, the classes he took. He wasn’t planning on going back to school.

I asked him, “Were the classes hard? Do you think I can make it in college?”

He replied, “Anyone can make it through college. All you have to do is study.” He went on to describe how some kids really studied hard and focused on their classes. Robert wasn’t that way. I’m not sure what his first year GPA might have been, but I can guarantee it wasn’t a 4.0, or a 3.0…

A year and a half later, I was accepted into Stanford. I never doubted whether I could make it through. I was careful in picking classes and studying enough to succeed. I did OK. My toughest classes were three quarters of Japanese language. My prof told me at the end of the year that some people have a harder time learning the language than others. That wasn’t the reason for my poor performance. I was partying too much, and not studying.

I was a solid 3.5 student. One quarter I wanted to see whether I could pull straight A’s. I chose classes–not basket weaving, but not calculus, either–that played to my strengths, and I studied hard. I got straight A’s, and my boyfriend at the time (an engineering major who WAS taking calculus) came out of the quarter with a 2.8. Life wasn’t fair then and it isn’t fair now.

This adage not only applies to college, but many aspects of life. I don’t mean to diss all those people who bust their butts and study/work hard; I have found in many cases just showing up every day is enough to make it through. Because a lot of people can’t even do that.

Someday when he is old…

Robert used to be really mean to me. He never did anything life-threatening. I never felt unsafe. I think now upon reflection it was because he had been the youngest for three years, then got bumped when I came along. He was three years older, so significantly bigger than me for many of those years. I would get so frustrated and angry when he picked on me. Sometimes he would just poke me in the back or the arm and run away, knowing I couldn’t catch him. I would run to Daddy and tell him Robert was picking on me.

One-time Dad said, “It’s OK. Someday when he is old you, will still be young and you can beat him up.”

I took great solace in that statement. I thought, It’s true! I will always be three years younger, and when he gets old, I will still be young. I’ll be able to take my revenge!

I didn’t anticipate that Robert would die at 70, relatively healthy and strong. And even though I grew to be at least as tall as he, he was still stronger at 70 than me at 67. I never thought he would be forever 70, and I will (God willing) continue to grow old.

Our relationship also taught me that people can change. I didn’t know that Robert got “the talk” from our older brother Harry about the fairer sex, and that opened Robert’s eyes to the fact that I was part of the fairer sex. He quit teasing me overnight.

We had a good rapport throughout our lives, even though our choices and paths in life were so different. I left the farm, had a non-traditional life and marriage; I lived life on the forefront of the Women’s Movement. He stayed on the farm, had a more traditional marriage. His family and the farm were his focus and priority. I was a sister—important, but not a priority.

I never had to beat him up.

In fact, our early bickering made me stronger and more resilient. Throughout my career working in industries dominated by men, I had to compete with guys who saw me as a threat, competitor or just extraneous. I had to play their game–just as Robert and I had played war games as kids with the Buechler boys–and fight to win. I never followed Robert playing war games. He didn’t want me on his team. It was Robert and me, head to head. He never coddled me, never cut me slack because I was younger or a girl. And because of this, I never expected to be treated any differently in business.

But also like most of the relationships I formed in business, Robert and I respected each other. We recognized our similarities and differences, our competencies, the bond of being siblings, and wanting the best for our families.

I’ll miss him. I still can’t believe he won’t be at the Home Place working at the grain leg or putting up hay the next time I go home.

This much I do know—his words have shaped my life, and just today I used his “Quit following me!” and got to know a host of new people I hope will become important in my life. And while I worked the gathering independently, this time it felt like Robert was beside me, cheering me on.

I have carried his advice while he was alive but not physically with me my whole life, and I imagine that won’t change a bit now that he is gone.

10 thoughts on “Brotherly Advice. Four tidbits that guided me through life.

  1. Carol Holmes Bangs says:

    Your words about your relationship with Robert give insight into a sibling relationship which is extremely relatable. Hold on to the many memories you have of Robert and keep telling your stories, Elaine. My deepest condolences for the loss of his future guidance.

    Like

      1. Karen Kruger says:

        This read is so inspiring and true. Our condolences continue for you and your family.
        Rick and Karen Kruger

        Like

  2. Rita Wagenaar says:

    Elaine, what an amazing story of siblings ❤, I was an only child, so if I has had a sibling I would definitely want it to as you and Robert were and still will be, he will continue to shape your life. The love that you have and his love for you is the best part of you both. My condolences to you and your family,

    Like

  3. Phyllis Burdette says:

    Thoughtful reflection on a warm, strong family relationship. You are such a good writer. As the oldest of eight children, spread over 25 years, I have been fortunate to have a good relationship with each of my siblings. Two our our brothers have passed so I know about the sense of loss. Your article was lovely. Keep writing. My sympathies to you and your family.

    Like

  4. Pearl Molina Castro says:

    Elaine your words are family deep. Our world’s were different, but as I watched and admired you as a cheer leader, I also knew you would succeed. Watching Robert, westle, coach and being admired by local kids and my nephew’s in westling, he has left a legacy, as I know you will to. I know he was proud of you and will be by your side forever. Prayers for your family.

    Like

  5. Richelle Naomi Moen says:

    I appreciated reading about Robert and the lessons learned from him as your older sibling . You are an inspiring writer, Elaine, You have the ability to put into words such clarity of description that it brought me through to the end so full of emotion and compassion for both you and Robert.
    Thanks for your tribute and modeling grieving!
    Richelle

    Like

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