Time in a Bottle

That’s my brother on the bed, being a new baby, 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.


He was my big brother and I was his baby sister. My brother passed away two years ago at the age of 81.

11 Comments on “Time in a Bottle

  1. I’m so sorry he passed. I lost my brother 14 years ago. He was always my big brother and we always cared about each other. I miss him still.

  2. To everyone who commented and expressed condolences, thank you. This is a repost from a few years ago and I neglected to remove the end note. My brother did pass away, but it was two years ago. Still, your condolences are much appreciated. I miss him a lot.

  3. Oh Jan,

    I’m so sorry for your loss.

    When you lose your parents, you’re an orphan. When you lose a spouse, you’re a widow/widower. I’ve always thought there should also be a special word for someone who’s lost a brother or sister – perhaps “sibless.”

    My thoughts are with you.


  4. Truly a heartfelt tribute to your brother. My condolences Jan. Thank you for sharing these memories.

  5. I’m in tears. What a beautiful tribute and eulogy. What love. I’m holding you in my heart, Jan. And, the elves are, too.

  6. Thank you for sharing these memories with such clarity and thoughtful language. I’m so sorry for you and everyone in your and your brother’s family who lost such a steady light.

  7. this was incredibly poignant and loving and gave me chills. I’m so sorry for the loss of your brother and so happy that you had each other.

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