Redefining our brother-sister story

For Christmas 1979, my brother Philip gave me what I thought was absolutely the lamest gift a 17-year-old girl had ever received: a Webster's New World Dictionary. I figured he did it out of malice. We were both teens, and we were having trouble with each other.

Philip is less than two years older than I. He drew the tough gate position of third child of four. We played together as little kids, but by high school our differences had filled him with disdain for me. I was perky, sociable, and glib-tongued while he was quiet, thoughtful, and nonconformist.

I cared about fashion, fretting vocally about my clothes. The "hot" look when we started high school was brightly colored bell-bottom pants and smocky embroidered tops. It changed shortly to skin-tight blue jeans, gold chains, and shirts with two to three top buttons left undone.

Philip considered both fashions absurd. Throughout the flamboyant 1970s, he wore charcoal-gray, straight-legged pants and earth- toned dress shirts, buttoned to the top. He got no end of grief for it. His classmates picked on him the way a litter of milk-toothed fox kits might harass a possum.

I can still see Philip going about the bustling high school hallways. He walked so close to the locker-lined walls that his right elbow bumped every protruding latch. His left shoulder was hunched high and his chin was clamped down on his collarbone as he fended off the hands of bigger boys or laughing girls trying to get at his top shirt button.

I felt sorry for him, but I knew he brought it on himself. "Why can't you dress like everyone else?" I would fuss on the car ride home from school. "Then they wouldn't bother you. You look like you've joined the Old Order Amish."

Philip never made a reply, but this was not out of the ordinary. For about four years, he didn't deign to answer my questions.

But in our immediate family, no matter how individuals were getting along, we always exchanged Christmas gifts. The loot under the tree was long on useful gifts from Mom and Dad, but we kids always got one another something as well.

So the year we were 17 and 18, Philip gave me my dictionary. As its red-and-green wrapping paper fell away, I rolled my eyes with exaggeration worthy of the silent silver screen. What a dud gift! I wanted clothes or pretty barrettes or Barry Manilow's latest album. What did I need this tome for?

"A dictionary," I said with distaste. I cast baleful eyes Philip's way to make sure my sarcasm was not lost. "Oh, thank you."

My brother sat among his opened presents - mostly solid-colored dress shirts and black socks - and looked quietly pleased with himself. Yes, he'd gotten me a gift, but it was one I hated.

Time went on. After he started college, Philip changed. He seemed to decide I wasn't so bad. I remember the shock when he began to talk to me, really talk to me. It felt like I'd been turned out of the leper colony.

When I followed him to his college in the fall of 1980, he seemed almost glad. He would stop by my dorm room with a pan of homemade Rice Krispies treats for me and my friends. He began wearing flannel shirts, then corduroy slacks, and finally blue jeans. His shirts' top buttons fell into disuse.

I changed in college, too. Classes kept me too busy to join organized social groups. Term papers took more research and thought than they had in high school. I began to appreciate my dictionary. My roommates, who owned eye-straining, abridged, paperback dictionaries, preferred to use my nice, hardbound full-size Webster's. I began to use it, too - at first to check spelling, then to look up new words from my class reading, and finally in my writing.

EACH year after graduation, I used my dictionary more, falling into the habit of flipping around to check synonym listings. I'd hunt for words I knew existed, if I could just find them. I felt like a forty-niner poking around in the foothills of the Sierras. The spine of my overworked dictionary broke between the "Mallorca-mammillation" and "mammock-Manchuria" pages. The edges of the pages became soft and yellowed with wear.

The 1980s waxed and waned, and, inevitably, the clothing fashions changed.

Ten years after high school, Philip and I were sitting side by side watching late-night television. There was Tom Cruise being introduced on a talk show, smiling and twinkling while he waited for the audience's whistles to subside.

"Look!" I pointed. "That's just what you used to wear in high school."

Sure enough, Tom Cruise, neatly shorn, had on a plain-colored dress shirt buttoned to the top and straight-legged charcoal-gray pants. I shook my head, amazed.

Philip crossed his arms and smiled slowly. "You see? I was just ahead of my time."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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