Memories of Chris on his 49th birthday

It’s no secret in my family that both Chris and I were snack hounds as kids. If there was a single sugary morsel in the house, one or both of us would find it. During the week we lived with our Mom and Stepdad Bob, and our diet was kept more or less healthy there. But on weekends we’d be unleashed upon my biological Dad and he was the definition of the Permissive Weekend Parent. We could talk him into just about anything at the grocery store and he knew we’d descend on his stash of goodies at home like a plague of locusts devouring crops. Our favorite soda back then was a local Pennsylvania/New Jersey brand called A-Treat and we quaffed can after can of their sarasparilla, lemon-lime, orange and grape varieties.

Knowing this, Dad tried buying A-Treat’s grapefruit variety, hoping we’d turn up our noses at it. Needless to say, we didn’t. And on those occasions when Mom or Bob baked cookies or some other treat, it had to be hidden very carefully somewhere in the back of a cupboard on the very top shelf with explicit warnings that snooping would be swiftly punished. As we grew up things got slightly more laissez faire at home and my folks started buying ice cream sometimes. But even as an adult Chris had a talent for nosing it out, so it had to be hidden away in the back of the freeer by any means necessary, usually wrapping it inside a bag that used to hold frozen peas or something. “Let’s have some mixed vegetables” became code for my parents digging out the ice cream and having themselves a frozen treat when Chris wasn’t around.

This next memory’s pretty esoteric but bear with me. Back in the 1980s when dystopian futures really got popular in fiction, a comic book character called Johnny Nemo appeared and I snapped it up at my local comic shop. This hard-boiled punk detective from 2921 AD had a half-shaved head and geometric shapes on his suit jacket, and the comic had all sorts of silly future-speak words and phrases. If I recall correctly there was a drug called “death-juice” and the standard drug dealer offer to passersby was, “Wanna die?” After reading this, it became an in-joke between me and Chris, especially when he was in surly, big brother, faux-bullying mode. He’d walk past me in the hallway, bump into my shoulder and growl, “Wanna die?!” To which I’d respond, “I’m not Johnny Nemo!” And he’d chuckle in spite of himself. Hey like I said, it’s esoteric. But it gives me a big smile to think about now. We bickered alot as kids so little dumb moments like that and playing baseball together are amongst the rare times we actually bonded until we grew up and started liking each other.

My Mom can tell this particular tale better than I can because I obviously don’t remember it. But apparently when I was a baby, one early morning after my parents had spent all night wrapping gifts and artfully arranging them under the Christmas tree, Chris came and retrieved me from my crib without waking my parents up. We then proceeded to go into the living room and he got at least part of the way through unwrapping our Christmas bounty before the adults arrived on the scene. Maybe the idea of clandestine gifts rubbed off on me because when I was in kindergarten I grabbed a stack of comic books from Chris’ sacred collection and handed them out to my classmates in school. As you can see, I more than held my own in the battle of Who Could Provoke the Other Brother Quicker.

There were some things we could agree and collaborate on as kids like building things with Lego bricks. But the thing that looms largest in my memory from my early years is Matchbox and Hot Wheels toy cars. Chris and I shared our collection and would often take them outside to play. One of the places we brought them was over to Chris’ friend John Gran’s house. We played in his backyard with them and I remember one time a sudden downpour arrived out of nowhere and we ran for home wthout collecting our cars. The next day we found they’d gone missing and some nearby kids had made off with them. I don’t remember the specifics but I know it was a pain in the butt getting them back and parents may have been involved.

The other place we played with our cars was in The Foxhole. Again I plead being young but I don’t remember the origin of this dirt hole in our side yard. I know my Dad dug it for us and it was a rectangular hole about 4-5 feet long and maybe 3 feet wide. Considering we called it The Foxhole it was probably requested by us so we could play soldiers but we also used it to build roads and caves for our toy cars and I have such happy memories of that. As an adult I’ve divested myself of most of my childhood toys but certain ones like that I held onto because he was so much a co-owner of them. Now that he’s gone I’ve taken the tough emotional steps of selling off our shared collections like those cars and our Star Wars toys, but I’ll always hold on to those memories.

For a few years as kids Mom and Bob drove us out to Ohio for annual visits to see my great-grandmother Flood at her ancestral home in Attica. That side of the family had lived there for many years and there were lots of fun nooks and crannies to explore. When we discovered that one part of the wooden bannister on the stairs came apart, we were overjoyed and went about the business of creating our very own hidden treasure. We found a brick that moved in the outside of the house and behind it we placed an old medicine bottle filled with little trinkets and some pocket change. Then under that piece of wooden bannister we left a cryptic note or map leading to the “treasure.” I can’t remember if we left it there or grabbed it the next year but for all I know the current owners still have a little surprise waiting for them to discover.

Chris was always into sports card collecting from an early age but around the time I reached junior high, baseball fever gripped me as well and the two of us started feverishly collecting Topps, Donruss, Upper Deck, Sportsflics, Fleer, and every other baseball card set we could get our hands on. One year for my birthday or Christmas, Chris gave me a little set of homemade cards he created himself. I also played in little league for a year and Chris dutifully kept track of all my stats on graph paper, though I fear he had little to report as the only time I reached first base was when I got hit in the arm by a wild pitch. Our baseball excitement culminated in a trip to Cooperstown, NY with our Dad to the Baseball Hall of Fame. We were beside ourselves at seeing the uniforms and signatures of our favorite classic players. And you can bet we pawed through the collections at Cooperstown’s local baseball card shops.

Chris was a classic meat and potatoes guy. His favorite meal was meatloaf and mashed potatoes and it was usually his request for a birthday meal at my parents’ house. I’m really grateful that we not only made peace and loved each as adults, but that we also lived in the same city of Keene, NH for so many years and would see each other at least once a week at my parents’ house for Family Nights. I always knew if Chris was already there because his backpack would be on the floor when I came in. Chris never went anywhere without a backpack full of everything he might need, from medications and water to reams of paper collecting his latest thoughts on music, or albums on CD he’d purchased recently and wanted to talk about with me. If I gave Chris a ride somewhere, the backpack came too.

I mentioned earlier that we both collected Star Wars toys as kids and like many people our age the first three movies (now known as episodes 4-6) became touchstones we could return to over and over again. When we were kids we devoured the minutiae of the Star Wars universe in books and Chris never forgot seeing the infamously bad Star Wars Holiday Special on TV when he was a kid. He’d always tell me how excited he and his friends were at the bus stop the next morning discussing it, and one of the things that made a huge impression on him was a miniature aquarium one of the charactes had. He made his own from a little clear Tic Tac mints container filled with water and gravel.

That was the kind of stuff we reminisced about in Chris’ last years, especially once Chris discovered the joy of a good brunch. Nearly every weekend Chris wanted to go grab brunch on a Saturday or Sunday, usually at Lindy’s Diner where we’d see our Aunt Cindi working a morning shift. Adulthood hadn’t exactly brought Chris an embarrassment of riches as far as new experiences go. His anxiety and other factors meant he didn’t leave town much and so the topics were either “Hey, remember that time…” or music he’d heard on the radio recently. I’m really glad we had those times together, just the two of us chatting and kidding around over eggs and home fries.

I’m sure as time goes by I’ll continue to remember other good memories of my big brother but I suppose this will do for now. Thanks so much for reading this and spending some time getting to know Chris a bit better. Much love to everybody!