The winter that my mother died felt colder than usual because there was nobody left to light the fireplace at night or make cups of hot cocoa with little marshmallows and a dollop of whipped cream. My father couldn't have provided these things for us if he wanted to; he was a businessman through and through, and the only services he could hope to offer his young children would be to help us with our tax returns once we grew old enough to leave the homestead. I was nine at the time and my brother was twelve, old enough to understand the tragedy but not quite old enough to realize the overall implications of it. We were to be a household of boys, a sort of forced fraternity. The only problem was that until then, none of us had been very close. That winter dinners were Easy-Mac, ham sandwiches, and whatever else we could make ourselves while father meditated on glass after glass of bourbon in his study; we knew he wasn't to be disturbed, so we didn't disturb him, and he returned the favor.
Our small house sat silent at the end of a dead cul-de-sac until late December. I was in the kitchen stirring a can of Campbell's soup over the stovetop while my brother trimmed the Christmas tree in the next room over. We were both wearing sweaters that Mrs. Robinson next door had given to us in place of ones that my mother might have made around that time, but these ones were itchy and had holes in them and were made out of a different kind of yarn than the ones that mother made. The central heating was on the fritz so we'd resorted to lighting the fireplace as often as possible, but there wasn't one in the kitchen so it was so cold that I resorted to placing my hands near the low-lying flames of the stovetop. I was about to pour the soup into a bowl when my father came in from his study.
Dwight, would you get in here? Adlai, come over here for a second, I have something important to tell you two.
My father had a certain powerful presence in our eyes: to us, he embodied authority in its purest form. The average onlooker, however, might see him as a sad, overworked, heavyset suit. That onlooker wouldn't be too far off.
Kids, this Christmas, I think I want to take us all on a trip.
Does that mean we're not getting presents? was the first thing my brother managed to blurt out. My father wasn't one for violence, but he also wasn't in the mood for childlike stupidity, so he smacked my brother upside the head on the spot.
The trip can be your present. I'm taking us all toto see some family. I feel like we've been a bit out of touch.
Even then I could understand that by family he had meant mother's familyall of my father's relatives were either dead already or too crazy to bother contacting. Besides the occasional reunion, I didn't have too much of a reason or opportunity to get to know those who had been close to my mother, and frankly, I didn't particularly care to.
Well what if I don't want to go?
Too bad, this is something that I decided we all need to do as a family. Besides, some of our relatives might have kids your guys' ages. You could play with them.
Now that was a prospect that my brother and I could look forward to. We hadn't had much contact with the neighborhood boys in a while; most of them didn't know what to say to us, so they decided not to bother trying to say anything at all. My brother and I shook our heads eagerly like dogs waiting for a treat with squeals of sounds great! and when do we get to leave? The trip was no longer some silly business dropped on us to ruin Christmas; we now saw it as an adventure to undertake.
We were to leave a few days after Christmas. Neither of us boys slept a wink until our departure day finally came.