Most children are acquainted with a small cast of never-seen characters that occupy larger-than-life status: Santa Claus, the tooth fairy, Easter Bunny, God, and perhaps the boogeyman. My family had all these and more, with the Great Pumpkin and the Great Valentine also visiting my home on an annual basis to bring decorated mini pumpkins and foil-wrapped candy. There was also my brother.
At some point before my existence (approximately 6 B.M.E.), Antonius and Dad had a falling out that resulted in almost 15 years of alienation. There were still hints of Antonius, enough for a child of six or seven or eight to believe without a doubt that he was real. There was a framed photograph of him resting in a dusty corner of the house, behind a philodendron my mother named ‘Seymour.’ Family members would speak of him in hushed tones and only around holidays. His existence was as credible and substantive as Santa Claus or anyone else, the only difference being I didn’t visit him annually in the local shopping mall for a photo opportunity. Via a sister, he gifted me a collection of Jane Austen novels and “The Secret Garden” for my eighth birthday. Inside the front cover of each book was a different inscription:
“I’m told you love to explore. May you always find something new that keeps alive your wonder and enthusiasm for discovery.”
“To my sensible but funny sister. It takes a heap of sense to write good nonsense.”
I remember tracing over the inscriptions with my finger and, later, through paper and a pen as I tried to imitate his unique scrawl. These books are still among my earliest possessions, even though the binding has long since rotted and the pages are the envy of dog-ears everywhere.
Antonius received my hero worship in absentia. He was my greatest hope for a good big brother relationship and especially important because I wasn’t doing so well with the other two. One brother forced me to eat a dead cockroach because I’d swiped his cowboy hat off his head and run away. Another brother was so angry with me for breaking a model helicopter that he cracked the drywall throwing me into it. One might write this up as normal childhood violence except they were 17 and 12 years older than I respectively. That said, I was an irritating kid and all of us probably deserved more parental discipline than we got. But the point is that the ship of ‘loving sibling relationship’ had sailed with two and Antonius was my last hope. My 8-year-old self wrote journal entries to the brother I’d never met the same way Anne of Green Gables wrote stories: abundantly and full of understated drama.
When I was 9, our shared grandmother died leaving Antonius a small portion of her personal fortune. It was practically the real-life version every person’s fantasy of an old, scarcely known relative dying in the fullness of time and leaving a much younger relative assets sufficient enough to rechart a life. Had I known her death would’ve been the catalyst for us to meet, perhaps I would’ve killed her with sugar-laced kindness, giving her a few extra cookies when her insulin levels were low. As it is, my childhood conscience is snowy white.
Months after my grandmother’s death, Mother and Dad shared with me the news. “We need to go meet your brother Antonius. Your dad has some business to discuss with him.” It amazed me that she could deliver so casually the most monumental announcement ever. Now I realize her calm was controlled distaste for a member of my father’s first family.
“This weekend. He’ll meet us at your grandmother’s farm in California.”
I rushed to pack with particular care: my yellow polka dot sunsuit, which Dad said was the color that made me look pretty. My blue vertical striped sundress, which Mother said made me look thinner. Six headbands. Socks with lace fringe. Every book Antonius had given me. I imagined balmy southern California sunlit afternoons on my grandmother’s porch, my brother reading aloud to me selections from my collection. Every night I fell asleep engaged in my favorite activity: mentally role-playing. Would he arrive to see me come downstairs, a la a southern plantation belle? Would he see me first from a distance, perhaps quietly reading, and be impressed by his studious sister? Perhaps he’d see me shepherding my younger siblings and be struck by my maturity. So many possibilities!
The reality was less elegant. On the appointed day, I was distracted by one of the neighborhood children and we dug deep holes in one of the farm’s fields. For some reason, I thought it was a good idea to fill my blue-striped skirt with as much dirt as it could hold, silty, sandy dirt with threads of alfalfa hay throughout and clotted together with recycled oil. I heard a car enter the driveway and my stomach sank underneath my filthy clothes. I hid behind a rusting farm truck but without success. A blue-striped sundress is not the best of farm camoflauge. Antonius strode onto the field, 26, slender, athletic, and real. I’m probably recalling a dramatized childhood memory, but it seems to me the sun was behind his head and spiky shards of light were shooting to all sides.
“I had no idea my new little sister was so dirty,” he said with a smile. Underneath the dirt, I blushed. “Let’s go inside and get you cleaned up. I brought you a present.”
I followed him probably resembling Pigpen from Peanuts, mortified and mentally kicking myself. Once inside my grandmother’s decrepit pre-Depression farmhouse, I took a shower and changed clothes. I brushed my eyelashes across a brown marker and pinched my cheeks to pinkness in a child-like effort to over-compensate. Antonius was on the porch drinking iced coffee with our dad and my younger sisters, my mother nowhere in sight. Antonius smiled.
“Hey, sister.” He handed me a package with heft. “Just in time for your present.”
I carefully peeled open the wrapping paper in the same controlled way that I still do. It was the collected and illustrated works of William Shakespeare, material I’d never before read but that I’d heard was wonderful. The paper edges were gilt and the book was easily five pounds. It looked like treasure and it felt like an anchor.
“Do you like it?”
I nodded. “But it doesn’t make sense to me.”
“It’s okay. How about I read you some later today?”
For the first time I remember, a fantasy was realized.