Time in a Bottle

That’s my brother on the bed, being a new baby in the afternoon, the afternoon’s sunlight softly sprayed across my parents’ bedspread. He is waking from a nap and because he is their first baby and still new, my mother calls for my father to fetch the camera. It’s the light that she loves. It’s just right. It is the summer of 1939.

A family changes with every new ingredient. So by the time the second or third child comes, the camera gets worn out, the lens starts acting funny and there’s no time to fix it or get a new one. There’s so much to do when there are babies around. But that’s okay. We remember what’s important without pictures.

When I met my brother, I was a baby who napped on that same bed and he was nine. In all of my conscious memory, my brother was fully formed as a person. He was never a baby, never a child. He was always quiet and competent, knew how to do things, understood his job in the family and took care of me. He was a constant and sometimes quite stern presence in my life. He filled in a lot for parents who had other very concerning things to do like work all the time or be too depressed to function.

He took me on his bike to the fish hatchery in Hastings. We sailed down Green Street, faster than anyone should go with a four-year old sitting sideways on the bike’s bar holding on to the handlebars. He sat with me under our tree. He told me the elves left their footprints in the bushes next to the house. They had parties at night while we slept but we could always tell they were there because of their tiny footprints. It was true. He showed me exactly where to look.

He painted the walls of his bedroom brown, played Harry Belafonte as loud as he could, and studied constantly. He called me Short Pants. Sometimes he called me Red. He taught me how to wash and wax a car. He made thick peanut butter sandwiches for me to eat before going to the movies. He was there all the time and he was always the same. He was steady. So steady.

Many years ago, he gave me a silver bracelet with a single charm, an elf, sitting holdings its knees, a little silver Peter Pan. And because it had been decades since the stories of the elves dancing in our bushes at night, I was astonished that he remembered. More, I was astonished he would be sentimental. My serious brother, my so serious brother remembering this small, fanciful thing, it amazed me.

Thinking of the bracelet reminds me that we know people as they were when we first met them. He was nine and I was that baby on the bed. Time passes. We grow, we age, we become people so radically different from each other in so many ways, and yet, we’re still as we were when we met.

He’s my big brother and I’m his baby sister.


#44/100: 44th in a series of 100 in 100






10 Comments on “Time in a Bottle

  1. This brought tears to my eyes. The years with my siblings and my yearning for a sibling for my daughter.

  2. Love this story. It reminds me of my eldest brother, David. He was 12 when I was born and was also responsible for taking care of me most of the time. You are so correct about our perspective on people being based on how we first know them. I will forever be his baby sister and he will forever be my older, wiser big brother.

  3. Good observation. If I may supplement: When we see our parents struggling to cope with old age related problems, we are sympathetic and supportive but uncomfortable. We always wish to see them as young as they were when we were kids!

    • That’s interesting. I actually liked my parents more the older they got. They seemed to become much gentler and had time to be more interested in things.

  4. YES … as we first met them or maybe at the age at which they most influenced us or had meaning in our lives. I think about this as high school friends have “Facebook birthdays.” I always tell them each year as they get older they remain in my mind young. And it depends on the friend: some I remember at 12, others at 16. Based on when they made the most meaningful impact on my life.

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