Celebrate Your Existence. William Blake
I was the one who named my little brother. Sort of. He had an official name, a name with heft and history, a name he shared with our father and our father’s father. Ernest Haskell III was the name written on his birth certificate. But since our father was fully inhabiting the “Ernest” part of that name when my brother was born on a golden-leaved day in mid-October, and since our grandfather, the long dead, but not forgotten artist of etchings and watercolors, also inhabited that name, our parents decided that my little brother needed a nickname, something that he could wear lightly until he, a seven and a half pound baby boy, grew in earnest into the Ernest. And it was “Skip” that they decided upon, like skipper of a boat, and skip with glee, and it was “Skip” that I, at two and three-quarter years old, couldn’t pronounce. It didn’t skip off the tip of my tongue, even when I tried really hard. And I remember trying really hard, and it seems like a memory to me, not something I’ve been told. We’d be sitting in the car, my mother and I and that new baby brother of mine, and maybe my big sister and brother, too, in Bath’s municipal parking lot, the one behind Senter’s Department Store, waiting for my father’s shift to end at the Iron Works, when my mother would instruct, “Say Skippy,” she’d say. “Kippy,” I would carefully repeat. Over and over, I would repeat it, to the best of my ability. “Kippy. Kippy. Kippy.” And that’s how it happened that my little brother, the one who is no longer little at six foot two, became Kippy.
And he remained Kippy for the whole of our childhoods. And we remained good friends, my little brother and I. In school, we were two grades apart, and, from the time we attended Newell Elementary through his first year of college at University of Maine, our peer groups often overlapped. But it was during the summer months, the months of mackerel fishing and early evening boatrides, of barefeet and scraped knees, the months that we settled into the ebb and the flow of the tides, settled into our cottage home at Fish House Cove that we really bonded. We didn’t have a choice. We were our peer group. Our big brother was far too old to play with us. And sure, our big sister, five years older than me, joined us in bunkhouse games and supervised our high tide swims as we paddled around the cove. But it was Kippy and I who traipsed through the woods together, climbed the ledges, explored the tidepools, Kippy and I who made forts out of the root balls of the fallen evergreens and climbed the pines that were still standing.
Those summer days of playing in the cove and out on Sister Point blend together now, glimmering treasures in a treasure chest of memory. And I’m not sure why it is this memory that is rising up right now, but it is. I’m remembering a day – I think it was morning and the tide was high and we were paddling around the cove in our red plastic boats. We loved these boats, these roundish swimming pool-type kid boats that our parents had bought us at K-Mart, boats that made us feel free and grown-up like our older brother and sister who had their own wooden skiffs. I can’t remember whether we had both crammed ourselves into one boat, or were paddling our own, but I’m sure our mother had told us that we needed to stay close to shore and that’s what we were doing, hovering the shoreline. And I can’t remember who noticed it first, but all of a sudden there was a fin circling around us, a fin! We were Maine kids, and it didn’t faze us to cozy up to jellyfish and the schools of mackerel and the lobsters and spiky scalpin who crawled on the ocean’s sandy bottom, but this was a fin! And we shrieked and we hollered and we called to our mother and we laughed; that’s what I remember most, that it was thrillingly funny to be paddling around our cove close to shore with a fin circling around us. Now it wasn’t a big fin, not the fin of a Great White on the lose; it was a smallish fin, the fin of a wayward dogfish. But it was glorious to magnify its power, to feel a sense of danger and excitement, all the while certain that we’d make it to shore.
Somewhere in those years, after the red boats had cracked one too many times for our father to mend with fiberglass, maybe after our father was no longer living and able to mend our own adolescent cracks, Kippy became Ernie to most people. I still hung in there, called him Kippy through high school and into college, was the last to abandon the nickname ship. And then, he became Ernest. And then, I moved to Michigan. And he moved to Germany. And we both got married and we both had kids. And now our kids are grown and it is mid-October and I was thinking about him the other day, about Ernest on his birthday, as I traipsed though the autumn woods. I was thinking about the red plastic boats and our encounter with the shark and the safety net around our childhoods that kept us from being gobbled up as we sought out our thrill-filled adventures.
And, as I walked along the path the other day, very present in the lively autumn present, I thought of my own boys, how during those years of not seeing very much of my brother, I was mother to two brothers, and it was familiar ground to me, thanks to my brother. And when my son, Pete, and his band of adolescent troubadours became enamored with Monty Python, I could laugh right along with them, even when their classmates didn’t, because I’d already lived that humor, laughed that humor with my own little brother. And my son, Chris, there were many times, when he spoke in a certain way or teased in a certain tone, that I called him Ernest by mistake. And when our house filled up with the testy edgy funny sharks-in-the-cove energy of a tribe of teenage boys, I’d been there, paddled those waters, could feel the thrill and offer a safety net even stronger than the one that was wrapped around me all those years. And my brother, when raising his kids, I’m guessing that he got a dose of his big sister as well – because, while my house was an athletic surge of testosterone, his was whooshing in the estrogen waves of sisterlhood. While I was calling my two boys “Ernest” by mistake, I’m guessing that, once in a while, he might have been calling his three girls, “Helen”.
So there you have it, isn’t it great when someone, someone who you once helped to name, has a birthday, and you’re able to think back to the nickname years and smile, and to realize that it all blends together, that the Kippy lives in the Ernest, that our kids remind us of our siblings, that the sharks never got us, that the safety net is alive and well, that in one flash of appreciation, it is possible to celebrate the existence, the whole package of a person you love.