Normally H and I host visitors at Fern Forest Treehouse in Vermont, but occasionally we travel and get to experience what it's like to be a guest. Staying with my brother outside of Tucson was such an opportunity.
Arizona is a long way from Northern Virginia where Butch and I grew up. In Vail, south of Tucson, it’s not unusual to see a bobcat sauntering down the street or a black widow spider weaving a web in the garage.
Butch’s wife Mary Beth teases the tarantulas but avoids the scorpions she often sees when she takes out the trash. I always recognize their house by the saguaro cactus in the front yard, those tall limby plants that look almost human once they grow arms. At Christmas Butch snuggles a Santa cap on its prickly top to keep off winter’s chill. Saguaros don’t like cold.
Butch moved to Arizona three decades ago, and it had been three years since I’d seen him. He has had a myriad of health problems—heart, colon cancer, gall bladder, and backaches. H and I agreed that Thanksgiving was a good time for a visit.
In the mornings, Butch and I were the first ones up. He made coffee for me and drank his orange juice from a mug, having given up coffee on account of his heart. Memory is tricky. We catch one event and drop another like fly balls in the outfield—sometimes he called the catch and at other times I did. I’d forgotten that our cousin tagged him with the nickname Butch because of the crewcut he had when he was eight. Before that he’d been “Junior,” which he never liked. He liked his given name—Lester—even less.
Five years younger than I, Butch has a better memory. He recollected going with Mom to pick up our dad at the A&P grocery store where he ground coffee and straightened shelves after working all day at the Navy Annex of the Pentagon. The extra job allowed us a weekly treat—hamburgers and a banana split at a café—at least before a heart attack caused Dad to give up working so many hours.
“Do you remember the Navy Band concerts Dad took us to on the steps of the Capitol building?” I asked.
“The concerts were at the bandstand by the Potomac River,” he corrected.
“No—they were at the Capitol.”
I started to feel the old gratings of competition. I’ve always been jealous of Butch’s blond hair and blue eyes. My hair is mud brown and my eyes hazel, which is no distinct color. He was the singer who got the leads in school musicals and in Tucson sang bass with the Arizona Repertory Theatre. I sailed through college and graduate school but can’t sing a note. At least we agreed that the Navy Band concerts always ended with a Sousa march.
“I’ll never forget waiting on line to view JFK’s coffin in the rotunda after the assassination,” Butch said.
“Was I with you,” I asked?
“You, Mom, Dad and I, yes. Dad wanted us to pay our respects.”
Butch was eleven in 1963. I was in high school history class when the announcement came over the loudspeaker that the President had been shot, but I don’t remember being at the Capitol.
“It was cold that November,” Butch said, “and I was shivering so much that Mom urged Dad to hail a cab back to our car. Dad was disappointed, but the line was so long we’d have been there another hour to get in.”
I poured another cup of coffee to buoy myself for the competition.
“Wasn't it great to watch the lighting of the Christmas tree on the Ellipse?”
“We never did that,” he said.
I had the advantage now.
“And Fourth of July fireworks at the Washington Monument?”
“We put off fireworks in the back yard,” he said. “I know that because of the time I used the car cigarette lighter to light a cherry bomb. It went off in my hand before I could toss it.”
He held out his hand to show me the scar on his finger. He may have been right about the fireworks, but I wasn't going to admit it.
The rivalry ended when our spouses got up and we made breakfast, shifting the conversation to the golden eagle perched in the ash tree behind their house and the hummingbirds at the feeders.
On one day of our visit, Butch and Mary Beth took Harry and me to the Sonora Desert Museum where we watched raptors show off their aerial skills and sneered at rattlesnakes behind glass. We ate at an authentic Mexican restaurant while a flamenco guitarist serenaded us. We sprawled on their leather sectional and played with the Wii on their huge screen TV, laughing until our bellies ached.
On Thanksgiving morning, Butch peeled and cut up sweet potatoes and cooked them until they were mouth-melting soft. Then he put them in a pan and sprinkled on brown sugar and butter, just the way Mom used to make them. I cut up fresh fruit for a fruit salad.
“Mom used canned fruit,” Butch said.
“I know,” I said. “But I like fresh fruit.”
Sometimes memory can be improved upon.
I steamed asparagus and sprinkled on olive oil and toasted almonds, and we talked about the good times and our regrets. When Butch was a senior in high school, his girlfriend discovered she was pregnant. At eighteen he was a husband and father to an adorable towheaded boy. I was off at college, so Butch moved his family in with Mom and Dad and got a job in a shoe store. When he enlisted in the Navy, his wife left him and took their son Jeff to live in New York. Butch kept in touch but saw his boy only occasionally. Years later he encouraged Jeff, who was then thirty, to move to Tucson.
We took our sweet potatoes and fruit salad to Jeff’s house for Thanksgiving dinner. Jeff met his wife Terry when he lived on Long Island and she embellished her New York accent with warm laughter. Their son Theo is the spitting image of Jeff at three years old, and eight-year-old Chloe has my brown hair and wide-set eyes, although hers are black like her mother’s. Shyly she asked what my favorite colors are and I told her pink and gold. Within a few minutes she had made me a bracelet of pink and gold elastic bands she had woven on a tiny loom. I wore the bracelet for the rest of our visit.
After dinner, Chloe read me a story about a redheaded girl with freckles and gave me a Mardi Gras necklace with a note taped to the green beads that read, “I love you. Chloe.” Theo was shy but let me kiss his cheek. I wanted the children to know me, to understand that their granddad has a sister who cares about them and is cheering them on as they grow up—even if from afar.
On the drive back to Butch’s house he said, “I ate some of your asparagus.” Butch doesn’t like asparagus.
“Everyone raved about your sweet potatoes,” I offered.
Out the car window the sun was putting on a show, setting the rugged mountains afire with gold and pink.
The next day my husband and I said our good-byes with long, tearful hugs. When we got to the Phoenix airport for our trip back east, Butch called my cell phone.
“Did you get there all right?” he asked.
The competition was over. For a few days we had transcended distance and time. As the plane took off, I thought about how in spite of the thorny cactus, blowing sand, and three thousand miles between us, we care about each other—we are family.