In December 1981, I moved into an apartment in Mountain View, California, when Silicon Valley was in its nascent phase. My brother, Charles, and, Margaret, my future sister-in-law, who lived over an hour away in Berkeley, visited me several times, together and separately.Sometime in the spring, Charles looked around my apartment and asked if I owned any tools. I didn’t—not a hammer, screwdriver, or pliers. This seemed to trigger some paternal impulse in him. He declared that I needed to own basic tools. At his insistence, we walked over to Sears, located few blocks away, and he bought me a hammer and screwdriver combo. I still use them almost forty years later. I am forever indebted to Charles for his fount of big-brother wisdom and care.
It’s hard for me to imagine being as young and stupid as I was in college. But at least I had an older brother, Charlie, to help me with the profound as well as the mundane. I went to school in Olympia, Washington, a place well known for near constant drizzle. Before I began my freshman year, Charlie helped me buy a small umbrella. So when I opened his gift for my twentieth birthday, sophomore year, and saw he’d given me a huge red stadium umbrella, I was confused. I thought, doesn’t he remember I already have an umbrella? He was there when I bought it!
At the time, I didn’t understand that umbrellas are not usually possessions that last a lifetime. They wear out and break easily. Less than two years older than me, Charlie seemed to know this fact. I don’t remember what happened to either of my college umbrellas, but they’re long gone. Thank goodness for my smart big brother, who knew I’d need at least two to see me through my college years.
In 1984 when I was twenty-four, I attended a Smokey Robinson concert with my big brother Charles, his fiancée, and a few of his friends. One of the friends lit a cigarette during the concert, and I asked if I could bum one. (In 1984 people were allowed to smoke in concert halls.) In college I’d decided to allow myself one cigarette per calendar quarter, and I’d never gone over my limit.
Seeing me with the cigarette, Charles asked me to step into the aisle. He ordered me to move near the concert hall door and stopped me before we reached it. Standing in the theater’s aisle, he proceeded to read me the riot act. He cited the early deaths by cancer of two of our grandparents, both of whom smoked, and in extremely harsh terms urged me to never smoke again. I was completely taken aback by his aggressive brotherly love. Thinking about it now, I’m moved to tears. I’ve never taken a single puff on a cigarette since that night. I owe my total abstinence from cigarettes and the potential health hazards I avoided to my brother. For over three decades now, I’ve been grateful for his tough love that night.
I am extremely fortunate to belong to this family. There is no substitute for the love of the people who know us best, who appreciate our strengths and fogive us for our imperfections.
My brother and sister-in-law always send me a few gifts for my birthday. This year, as I gazed at the small pile of presents in my living room, I realized each gift had been prepared with different wrapping paper and ribbon. I take pride in remembering the birthdays of my friends and family, but if a gift can be wrapped in tissue paper and placed in a gift bag, I’m a happy camper. I’d never take the time and trouble to wrap three gifts differently. When I looked at my presents, I was grateful not only for the thoughtfulness that greets me every year with my small pile of birthday loot, but also for family that goes the extra mile to make my gifts festive and colorful.