About Barton James Schiffer, oldest of four children by Harriet and Maurice Schiffer
Barton James Schiffer was born on November 12, 1952, the oldest child of Harriet and Maurice Schiffer to a large extended family on both sides spread across the lower peninsula of Michigan.
We were a relatively small Catholic family in our parish, St. Therese’s on Turner Street in Lansing. Our father was a bricklayer, our mother a housewife who continued with her college studies as we were growing up, and eventually became a teacher.
I am his sister writing about him in this blog. I was born 11 months later, almost to the day, on October 11, 1953. We also had a younger brother, Rick, born on New Year’s Eve, in 1954. JoAnn, the youngest sister, was born two years later on October 6, 1956. Bart and I hung out together a lot of the time, and the two younger also paired off with each other.
When I look at early photos of our family, one of my favorites was the four of us sitting in a tub together. We were all pretty close in age to each other. I’m sure that we were quite a handful for our mother, but I remember those years when were young children as very happy ones.
Bart had a big smile and ears that stuck out so far that we used to tease him about being Dumbo (the flying elephant), skinny legs and arms, and a zest for living such that nothing could keep him down for long. He could be extremely annoying, but he was also great fun. Bart was a colicky baby and suffered from allergies and asthma. As a young boy, no doubt, it would have been generous to call him scrawny.
I have two rather contradictory images of him, one of a boy who read books all the time, and the other an active boy who rode his bicycle everywhere, climbed trees, hunted snakes, built tree forts and sand forts, and kept a Monopoly game going all summer in the garage,with everyone in the neighborhood dropping by to play a game, sometimes waiting in line for a turn.
Bart didn’t like being scrawny or weak. In second grade, he missed so much school from poor health that it was decided to keep him back a year. We’d go to visit our grandparents on the farm and play with the dogs and cats, and ride the horses. It would set him wheezing so hard on the trip home that a few times we ended up at the hospital for him to get oxygen. Bart wasn’t the type to invite pity or to pity himself. He was a fighter and he fought his way to robust, good health.
My parents decided to send him to live with my aunt in southern California one year. He joined a boy’s club and started working out with weights. When he returned from that year, fit and tan, with real muscles in his arms, he was still thin, but he was a different boy from then on.
My father installed a chin-up bar in the garage, and Bart always did chin-ups to keep himself strong. He also worked out with weights, and was terrific at doing push-ups, too. In the end, it wasn’t poor health that killed my brother. Maybe it was fate, and he would have died one way or another after a short life. They say that the good die young… but he wasn’t THAT good.
Maybe I can write about his death down the road, but my interest now is in writing about his life.
In grade school Bart went through a stage where he had an enormous appetite, and could never get enough food to eat, it seems. At the school cafeteria, it became a kind of joke. If there was food on your tray that you didn’t like, you could always give it to Bart. He’d eat anything and everything, and you’d see him at lunch scavenging, always moving very quickly between tables, making the rounds to get something more to eat from the other kids.
So Bart went from starting out as a scrawny, sickly kid to a wiry, tough one. He was serious about body building, and in high school, he even managed to join the football team. I can still see him in my mind’s eye, sitting astride his Yamaha motorcycle. with muscular arms, fit and trim, wearing a shit-eating grin. He loved that bike.
Everyone liked Bart at our school, even if he was the butt of jokes at times. He was always good-humored about being teased. Bart was a friend to everyone, and was never unkind. Am I exaggerating in retrospect? I don’t think so.
But he could fight, and he would fight, if he had to. He let everyone know that he was my protector and if anyone picked on me, they’d have him to answer to. One of the favorite pasttimes for the boys at our school yard during recess was to play king of the mountain on a dirty pile of snow that seemed to last all winter. It just got packed tighter and more solid by the snow plows when they cleared the parking lot, and at times, it was enormous. The boys competed to show who was the toughest, and the one who could push everyone else off was “king”. This was a game that Bart loved.
I wouldn’t be who I am today if Bart had not been my protector, making life easy for me at school, making life good for me to excel as a student, safe, secure, cherished and loved. He was my champion, and he was my good friend.
Not that I ever really appreciated it at the time. And I didn’t always treat him well. I usually took him for granted. However, to my credit, I also enjoyed his company a great deal, riding bikes together in the summer, exploring the countryside, reading books together at my grandmother’s house upstairs in the bedroom, laughing at parts, and sharing what made us laugh, playing with his collection of toy soldiers, acting out strategies such as pincer maneuvers that we’d read about in books we shared.
Bart liked to read about history, wars, science, and science fiction. We were both thrilled by the story, “The Time Machine”. I liked to read also, and I read everything Bart read, and then some.
At Christmas, Bart always got the best presents, boy’s stuff: a printing press, a telescope, a microscope, a train set. I was never jealous, though, because I knew that he would willingly share his things with me. I was never much interested in playing with dolls.
I really grew up playing with my brother and his friends more than any other girls.
Puberty was hard on Bart. He wasn’t a good student, and he was terrible at French. That class was pretty painful for him. And he was very interested in girls. Probably the most difficult time in his life was the period when girls were not very interested in him, but that did change.
I look forward to sharing more of what it was like growing up with my brother Bart. Just writing about him brings back the goodness of that time in my life when we were children. It’s never been the same without him.