My folks started asking what my sons want for Christmas a couple weeks ago, and I’ve been stumped.
Gifts were easier when they were around 6 and 8 and they spent all their leisure time on one extreme of the technology timeline or the other. It seemed like if they weren’t begging for video games, they were adding to the precious pile of sticks they liked to chase each other around the yard with. Let them unwrap a Nerf blaster or squirt gun to liven up the backyard battles and they’d be thrilled.
But now, as it looks like their personalities are settling into those of the men they’ll be one day, it’s not so simple thinking up gifts they’ll love.
The little one is spending a lot more time curled quietly on the couch with books, and my wife and I are trying to find the sweet spot between easy reading that bores him and novels that’ll spark uncomfortable questions.
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Meanwhile, the big one is going full jock. Give him a ball and a buddy and he’s set until dark. And since he already has equipment for every sport he plays, there’s not much he needs from Santa.
So I’ve been thinking back to the presents my folks gave my little brother and me when we were growing up, looking for gift ideas they might rehash for their grandchildren. The best one, I’m realizing, was the ability to build deep friendships with people who seem to have nothing in common with us.
If we weren’t brothers, my brother tells people, we’d have never been friends. You’d be hard-pressed to find two people in my town more different from each other than we are.
As kids, I’d be in the house learning to code and he’d be out back working on the question of what happens when you drop a lit match into a big glass bottle holding a small puddle of model airplane fuel. (Answer: Nothing at all the first few times, until fumes have a chance to fill the bottle. Then your eyebrows turn to ash, your hat rides a blue flame 30 feet in the air and you learn how loud Mom can scream.)
Later, he was raking in sports trophies and I was collecting writing awards, and neither of us really believed the other was having fun.
Our parents always gave us what we needed for the separate paths we were cutting through life — finding him summer work baling hay at the foot of the Rocky Mountains and keeping a steady flow of my magazine subscriptions dropping into our mailbox.
But they made sure my brother and I had to spend time sharing things in common, too. Sometimes it was as simple as long car rides with nothing to do but talk, and sometimes it was grumbling through days of digging post holes or mucking out livestock stalls.
We both broke free as soon as we could, him to the Air Force and me to college.
When we made our ways back home we each noticed something. The other one was still weird, but not just weird. He was a fascinating ambassador from another culture. My brother sat through bizarre art films with me and my friends, and then I’d head to a sketchy warehouse with him and his crew to party at one of the first raves we’d ever heard of.
And now that we’re grown, my brother and I have good friends from across the spectrum of our culture.
Sometimes we make the groups we’re with look like one of those “which of these things does not belong” puzzles, but we have a lot more fun for all that. We both have friends who pontificate in ivory towers and friends who lay the sewers for those towers, friends who are way right wing and way left, all who’ll happily pass us a beer while we shoot the breeze.
That’s the priceless gift our parents gave my brother and me: The freedom to venture as deep as we wanted into the woods of our peculiar interests, paired with the imperative that we maintain good bridges and a welcoming path back to the crossroads where we could meet the other.
So Mom and Dad, give my sons what you gave yours. The little one would love some books. The big one could use some sweats that he can muddy up on a sports field.
And then take them on long drives where there’s nothing to do but puzzle out through brotherly conversation what the other finds so darn interesting about his interests.
Richard Espinoza is a former editor of the Johnson County Neighborhood News. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.