Somehow, as my 75th birthday gets closer and closer, I rarely think about myself as the baby of the family.
But I am. And trust me: the youngest in the family–at least in mine–is always the baby.
Aside from the dubious distinction of being the baby, I’m not sure that the status ever included many other benefits.
Well, maybe one. When I was born, my oldest brother and sister became rocking rivals:
“It’s my turn to rock Brentford Lee tonight.”
“No, it’s not. You rocked him last night.”
I was rocked a lot. My oldest sister still reminds me.
And, on reflection, maybe being the baby came with a second benefit. My middle sister pretended that she was my mother. I had double doses of motherly affection. She still reminds me.
What sweetened my baby-of-the-family deal, though, was the simple fact that I was born smiling. “Little Mister Sunshine” became my nickname.
Naturally, the twofer combination–baby and smile–came to mean one thing and one thing only: Brentford Lee could do no wrong.
I am certain that I was capable of doing lots of wrong. More, I could have done so and gotten away with it easily. But, by and large, during my childhood–and continuing thereafter–I tried my best to do no wrong. When I did, I tried my best to right the wrong as soon as I could, especially if the wrong had been prompted by anger. My mother taught me and my siblings to not let the sun go down on our wrath.
Once as a teenager, however, my anger caused a great hurt–to others and to me–and I did not make amends before the sun went down.
I remember that fall day as vividly as if it were yesterday.
It was at the start of my freshman year, and something happened in school that ticked me off. Whatever it was had to have been of no real consequence. I can’t remember the details at all, not even one.
But I do remember that the short walk from the bus stop to my home was not long enough to soften the sharp edge of my anger.
As I approached the house, I saw on the front porch a brand new, light brown, faux-wood, metal cabinet. It had two doors that opened out from the middle, and it was about four feet wide and six feet or so tall.
I went right past it, deliberately banging the screen door against the wooden frame as I walked inside. My mother was standing at the kitchen stove with a big smile on her face, not to be undone as I slammed my books on the kitchen table.
“What is that ugly thing on the porch?”
My mother looked at me and started to respond, but my ongoing rant gave her no chance. She kept on cooking dinner.
“It’s hideous, just hideous.”
My mother remained silent, as I marched back out to have a second look, banging the screen door, going out and coming back in again.
“Who’s it for?” I asked, showing an unbecoming attitude that still makes me cringe.
My mother’s “It’s for you” hung in the air, echoing against itself over and over in my mind. “It’s for you. It’s for you. It’s …”
She smiled softly as she kept on cooking.
“Your dad and I thought that you might like to have a wardrobe of your own to keep all your new school clothes in.”
I had always loved clothes, and now that I was in high school, I loved them even more. Sweaters. Slacks. Socks. Always matching. Always the best that my summer yard mowing jobs could buy. Always bought on lay-away at the best men’s store in a small city nearby. My mother took great pride in how I dressed, and she took even greater pride in knowing that I was known as the best dressed kid in school.
“For me? I don’t want it. That wardrobe is so ugly. I’ll never use it. Never.”
My mother looked away and didn’t say another word about the wardrobe. Her face was still. Her smile, broken. Her joy, gone.
And that ended it. My dad put the wardrobe downstairs. I don’t remember who used it. It didn’t matter to me that it was a wardrobe of my own. What mattered to me was that I thought it was ugly. What mattered to me was that I vowed to never use it. What mattered to me was that I never did.
The wardrobe was still downstairs when I graduated from high school with honors and went away to college.
It was still downstairs when I graduated from college with honors and moved to our Nation’s Capital.
The wardrobe was still downstairs when I started working at the Library of Congress.
When I came back home for visits during those late teenage and early adult years, neither my mother, my father, nor I ever mentioned my wardrobe. It was as if it had never entered our home. Yet it had entered, and it remained.
And then the day came when the wardrobe of my own rose up from afar, right in front of me, right before my very eyes.
I was struggling with my monthly budget. My handsome salary as an editor at the Library of Congress had an equally handsome competitor: the high cost of living in D.C., combined with paying off student loans. As I did my math, I suddenly realized that I just couldn’t have everything that I wanted. I had to make hard choices. I had to make painful sacrifices just to make ends meet.
In a flash, I realized that when my parents chose to buy me a wardrobe of my own, they chose to make sacrifices. My mom chose to do without her new dress. My dad chose to do without his new shoes. My siblings who were still at home had no choice. This time my parents chose to sacrifice for me as they had chosen to sacrifice for all of us, all down through the years.
Immediately, I picked up the phone and called my mom and dad. We had a long, long conversation about a wardrobe of my own.
I don’t know when “I’m sorry” brought forth such joyful tears.
The tears could not undo that teenage day when I was so lacking in gratitude. But my mom and dad let me unburden my sorrow, and across the miles and across the great expanse of time, they washed it away with their unconditional love.
Seven years had passed, but, finally, the evening sun went down on a wardrobe of my own.