Harmony is restored when the holidays help siblings put a lingering squabble behind them.
Posted in , Sep 19, 2012
I was sitting in the kitchen, counting heads for Christmas Eve dinner. What broke my heart was thinking about the one person who wouldn’t be there. My oldest brother, Tim.
We’d had a disagreement, a silly misunderstanding. I wasn’t even sure what had started it, but for three years running we hadn’t spoken to each other, hadn’t sent so much as an e-mail. How could I spend another Christmas Eve without Tim?
He was my protector, my idol, my best friend. There were four of us kids, two boys, two girls, only five years separating the oldest from the youngest. We almost looked like two sets of twins.
In one of Dad’s old home movies Mom is bringing in her latest and last bundle from the hospital—me. Everybody squints at the glare of the 16 millimeter camera’s light, but nobody seems prouder to hold me than big brother Tim.
Other boys might have scorned a little sister’s company, but Tim let me tag along everywhere—to the schoolyard, to the pool on the Navy base where our father was stationed, to the hobby shop where Tim bought slot cars.
When he did experiments with his chemistry set, I was his assistant, watching the beakers and test tubes. Catching fireflies in the yard, he helped me put mine in a jar to make a lamp.
On Christmas morning we huddled at the top of the stairs, playing jacks and pick-up sticks, waiting for the light on Dad’s camera to warm up. Then Tim led the four of us in a dash down the steps to the presents that Santa had brought.
Our father was a chief petty officer and could be deployed for months at a time. One special holiday we went to a Christmas party for the Navy kids on his ship. Dressed in our Sunday best, we went up the long ramp and crossed a scary plank to the deck.
The ship was festooned in colored lights. A band played carols. We ate cookies, played games, danced the hokey-pokey and did the bunny hop. Every child sat on Santa’s lap to say what he or she wanted.
When I was in sixth grade and Dad was deployed I missed him so much I wrote a long letter saying that when he came home I expected him to retire from the Navy. That year I’d asked Santa for a three-speed bike, but Christmas morning I was so upset, missing Dad and his camera, that I hardly noticed the missing bike.
I opened my presents, then sat beneath the tree and cried. “Judy,” Tim said, leading me by the hand, “come to the kitchen.” I couldn’t believe my eyes. There was my three-speed bike. Tim was raising the kickstand and rolling it toward me. I was sure that Tim had as much to do with me getting that bike as Santa himself did.
Dad did retire from the Navy, and took a job in the civil service. Because he could get paid double on Christmas Day, we moved the family celebration to Christmas Eve. When he retired from that job, we only had him for another two years.
His death was a terrible loss, one I’d barely recovered from, and dealing with the loss of Tim’s companionship was like mourning all over again.
I looked once more at the list for Christmas Eve. Tim’s grown daughter Katie was coming, as usual, and his son T.J. They hadn’t gotten caught up in our silent war. Why couldn’t Tim and I put an end to it? We were family, after all.
Tim and his wife, Janea, had provided moral support when my marriage failed. Every Friday I joined them at their house for “pizza and video” nights. Then, when I remarried, it was because Tim had introduced me to the perfect man.
Tim was our daughter’s godfather. His and Janea’s absence from our home and from our table just couldn’t go on any longer.
Sitting in the kitchen, I prayed for the umpteenth time, Lord, let us all be together this Christmas. Just like old times.
I was startled when the phone rang. It was my niece Katie, a lilt in her voice.
“I was just thinking about you,” I said. “Counting noses and thinking about who will be here.” She must have known what was on my mind, but I wasn’t going to bring it up. I didn’t want to put her in an awkward position. Things were awkward enough.
“You won’t believe it, Aunt Judy! I just got off the phone with Dad. He wanted to know what time to go to your house for Christmas Eve!”
I put down the phone in wonder. Tim was coming!
The adults in our family didn’t normally exchange Christmas gifts, but this was different. I wanted to find some way to show Tim that my feelings hadn’t changed one jot since we were kids.
I dashed to Mom’s cedar chest. I rummaged through Dad’s old things. Finally I found it. A framed black-and-white picture of the four of us kids at the Christmas party on Dad’s ship.
Would Tim remember how afraid I was to sit on Santa’s lap and when we crossed the plank, the water visible below us between the cracks? Would he remember dancing the hokey-pokey with me and doing the bunny hop?
I wrapped the picture up and put it under the tree. I could hardly wait to see Tim’s face when he opened it.
Christmas Eve was just like old times. No, it was better. What was lost was found again. Tim and I hugged each other the minute he walked in the door. Then we seemed to pick up just where we had left off. Tim was surprised when I handed him the present.
“Hey, you’re not supposed to do that, sis,” he said, laughing. And then he held out a wrapped gift. It had my name on it.
We stared at each other for a moment. It was as though we were both trying to say, Forgive me. Life’s too short. I can’t do it without you.
“You go first,” I said. All my images of him over the years scrolled through my mind’s eye. Did he know how much he figured in every key scene of my childhood? Did he still remember the bike and the firefly lamp and holding my hand on the ship?
He took off the tissue paper and looked at the old photo in its frame, then hung his head. Tears were in his eyes.
“I’ll go ahead,” I said, my heart beating wildly. I untied the ribbon, lifted the top off the box, dug through the tissue paper and took out an old photo, exactly like the one I’d just given Tim. Now I was crying too. “I can’t believe we both thought of the same thing.”
I’ve had other Christmas surprises since then but nothing quite like that. The best Christmas present I ever received was having my brother back.