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Thankful for sibling's grace

Bob Brody's uncle Leonard and Brody's mother, Aileen,

Bob Brody's uncle Leonard and Brody's mother, Aileen, in the Bronx in the 1940s. Credit: Bob Brody

Every Thanksgiving for decades, I phoned my Uncle Leonard to wish him a happy holiday. But for the last 10 years I’ve also called to thank him for performing a good deed.

Here’s why.

In the summer of 1929, my mother, Aileen, then barely a year old, was stricken by spinal meningitis, rendering her profoundly deaf for life. Two years later, her brother Leonard was born.

Because of her deafness, my mother required almost all of the attention from her mother and father, particularly to learn to speak. Leonard grew up feeling neglected, resenting his sister and angry at his parents.

By all accounts, my mother was a difficult child, hard to please and prone to tantrums. So was her brother. Leonard objected to any authority and routinely misbehaved in school. He was so disorderly that he was kicked out of Horace Mann School. A photo of him from military school shows him sneering at the camera, looking ready to punch someone in the throat.

Even so, Leonard typically treated his sister with the utmost tenderness. He confronted children in the neighborhood who mocked how she sounded talking. He regarded her inability to hear as an injustice inflicted by an uncaring universe. And he saw no reason to hold her favored-child status against her.

My uncle soon strove to excel, as if to prove himself worthy of the parental attention he rarely received as a child. He graduated from Yale University Law School at age 21. He embarked on a highly successful career as a trial lawyer, winning landmark multimillion-dollar litigation cases. He represented Lloyd’s of London, among the first Jews ever to do so. He established a law firm that ultimately employed 40 lawyers in a midtown Manhattan skyscraper. In due course, he grew rich, with a mansion in Brookville and vacation homes in Florida and France.

Throughout, Leonard stayed loyal to his sister, especially after she descended into alcoholism. My uncle, himself a former alcoholic, prevailed on her to enter a rehab facility, and soon she turned sober for good. Afterward, to help her feel more like a productive citizen, he gave her a job at his law firm as a bookkeeper.

But his final gesture for her was unmatched in its generosity. My mother, then in her early 80s, developed dementia, eventually requiring expert — and expensive — long-term care. Her brother paid year after year for her to reside in a top-notch assisted-living facility. No one else in our family could have afforded it without major sacrifice.

So I called my Uncle Leonard every Thanksgiving to thank him profusely for paying to take care of his sister. He always deflected my thanks, never accepting any credit for his actions.

"I had to take care of her," he told me last year. "I promised my mother I would."

My mother died early this year, at age 91. My Uncle Leonard, himself now in failing health, took care of his sister to the end. He proved that even the most stubborn among us are capable of redemption. He came to understand, and appreciate, why his parents had doted so on my mother.

In the end, Leonard gave his sister the attention once unavoidably denied him. He turned the hurt he felt as a child — the bitter sense of abandonment — into an act of rare and heroic grace. In so doing, he triumphed, and left a legacy our family will long remember.

Bob Brody, a consultant and essayist in New York City, is author of the memoir, "Playing Catch with Strangers: A Family Guy (Reluctantly) Comes of Age."