I was chatting with a friend the other day, when they said something that sparked a memory:
You get what you tolerate.
I remember a childhood time when I had tolerated enough.
My brother and I grew up palling around with two cousins who were close in age. The four of us were tossed together continually, and for much of our childhood, my brother and I stood on the fringes, wide-eyed as those two brothers beat the living daylights out of each other. It was a common occurrence to watch them pummel each other–rolling around, fists flying at home and even on the grocery store floor, tumbling about the feet of horrified shoppers. They pushed each other off their bikes, chanting: I hate you! The older one was the perpetual instigator, pushing all buttons, inciting his younger brother to brawl. It was a jumbled mess, and the turbulent backdrop of most family gatherings.
In contrast, my brother was my best little friend. We spent afternoons after school breathing in the great outdoors, romping about the fresh countryside, our blond heads warming in the New England sunshine, riding our Big Wheels, capturing frogs and turtles, eating lush raspberries and Concord grapes from the gardens, frolicking in the fields with our beloved pet rabbits who were tethered to fraying, slender ropes. We built forts from branches, rocks, and discarded weathered planks. Together, we spun circles on tire swings, swiveling beneath the squatty crab apple tree, spinning with one sneakered toe twirling in the sand until we grew dizzy, laughing and falling, landing in the soft grass, gazing skyward at the puffy cloud formations.
This lush, ancient farmhouse on vast acreage was our childhood kingdom. It was innocent and it was good. A joy pierced my young heart as I felt the presence of the Almighty in every slant of sunbeam and rush of wind and scent of berry. I worshipped God without having such vocabulary. The flow of seasons was designed by my Creator, and I loved him for granting such golden treasure.
I also loved my brother, and can only remember one time that we engaged in a true-blue fight. We felt so remorseful, so sad following this tussle that we apologized immediately and forgave each another, with hushed pinky-promises not to tell our parents that we had shoved and hit. He was eight and I was nine.
The older of our two cousins was a terribly unhappy and ungrateful boy: sullen, nosy, and frightfully mean. He was jealous of anything and everything, one of the most discontented people I had ever met. I was the only granddaughter for a long time, which meant that I was accustomed to being surrounded by boys.
One summer my Grandpa gifted the family with a cottage beach vacation, where the dunes swept high even as the sea grass bent low, dancing in the breeze, while the smell of salt air filled our pretty cottage with a beauty difficult to measure. The word that comes to mind is longing, a tender stirring of my heart towards God. I understood that he was the Author of this dazzling artistry surrounding me; the sky was his mural, the marshes his handiwork. The magnificent power, terror, and purity of the ocean itself prodded me toward God. Such thoughts cascaded through my mind, lighting and sparking my imagination like a fuse, swelling my soul even as I ambled through the kitchen, leaving a speckled trail of beach sand in my wake.
The cousins that summer seemed legion, six of us overlapping in age. The first night of vacation we were sent off to the cottage’s loft to sleep, each with a pillow and sleeping bag–little sardines in a smidgen of a room. While the others were downstairs brushing their teeth, I climbed the ladder into the loft. My older cousin scrambled up behind me.
I unrolled my forest green sleeping bag onto the narrow floor, fluffed my little pillow, and placed my teddy bear neatly in the middle.
As I turned around, my cousin was crawling toward me, undressed from the waist down, and saying: I want to show you something.
I froze in terror.
And then: heavy footsteps flying up the ladder. Suddenly, my cousin was airborne, yanked backwards by the scruff of his neck.
The cavalry had come. Grandpa.
His eyes were ablaze as he shouted. Don’t you ever-—
And that is all I remember of that.
It never happened again, as Grandpa had put the living fear into him.
Years passed, and this boy remained a problem. He cheated at board games, whined to his parents that everyone else had received a bigger scoop of ice cream than he, and lied about both substantial and inconsequential things.
By and large it was accepted by the family that this was simply his nature. Thereby, we were held hostage, to a certain extent, by this little terrorist.
Such deviant behavior went on for years, and I endured. No one liked his company, especially his own brother. But what could I do? I was a pleaser, a fixer, a firstborn. If I was obedient enough, maybe, just maybe, I could prevent the wretched behaviors of others.
A failing plan if ever there was one.
And then? I turned ten.
And one summer’s day, enough was enough.
It was our last year vacationing together at the beach.
I clearly remember that summer because Grandpa surprised me with a t-shirt that I loved. It was maroon, with a yellow duckling on the front. I named him Puddle-duck, and wore the shirt as often as possible.
We lived at the beach those two weeks, walking with our bags and umbrellas and buckets and shovels after breakfast, returning home for peanut butter sandwiches and a rest at high noon. Mid afternoon we flip-flopped back, frolicking in the sand and waves, until returning again to our cottage in time to rinse off in the outdoor shower, washing away the grit of salt and sand before cooking dinner. With so much walking and swimming we slept deeply each night, blissfully clean and sun-kissed, all tan lines and golden hair.
I was a fish then, thriving in the cold water, the waves lapping, swimming for hours on end, collecting periwinkles and hermit crabs, watching them spar like valiant warriors in the bottom of my red pail. Come afternoon, my fingers were like raisins after hours in the sea. I was continually ravenous that summer, as my parents had signed me up for ocean swim lessons, which required heaps of outgoing energy. I was thrilled with these challenging lessons with other children, as we learned to battle the waves and swim incredible distances with proper breathing, measured strokes, and hard-won endurance.
My cousin whined No Fair! until his parents enrolled him, too. In the end, I passed the distance swim test, and he did not. It was not a big deal, a small thing, really. But my cousin grew despondent then angry. Very angry.
It was uncomfortable, as the entire cottage felt his displeasure.
On the last day of vacation, Grandpa generously doled out a few dollars to each of us grandchildren, waving us off to the local five-and-dime. This was a big deal, and we felt quite grown up skipping down the sandy roads to the gray and weathered establishment. We took our sweet time choosing candy treasures: fireballs, candy cigarettes, Necco wafers, wax lips, ring pops, Bubble Yum, and long paper strips of candy dots. The cashier was old and round and friendly, smiling as he placed our loot into our very own, pint-sized paper bags.
I was fairly certain that my cousin pocketed a few pieces of extra candy behind the good cashier’s back, but I was not positive.
My heart began thumping, and I looked at the kind soul ringing up his bill. What should I do?
I stepped out into the sunshine and unwrapped a fat piece of Bubble Yum. I blew some bubbles and practiced my new trick of snapping my gum as my brother grinned. We waited for our cousins.
Finally we started back toward the cottage, a cluster of stair-stepped children comparing bags of candy, and trading pieces.
My cousin turned to me. I have the most candy.
I rolled my eyes at my brother. So Nellie Oleson.
Cousin stared at me, and then: Hey Kristin, wanna race back to the cottage? First one inside wins.
I knew where this was going and felt his pulsing anger: the week of swimming lessons was eating away at this jealous-stricken creature. No one else cared, but he certainly did.
And then I knew. I needed to win this race. I thought of his cheating ways, his incessant lying, his indecency, and now his potential theft, which was the final straw. I was ten years old and this malarkey, as my Grandpa called it, had to end. So I said:
Okay, I’ll race you.
Good, he said. I will count to three.
I nodded, handing my brother my bag of candy, and lining up carefully as my cousin counted:
And he took off, shooting out of the gate.
Once a cheat, always a cheat.
I was done. Finished. Over it. Tired of being swindled by this skinny kid.
So I flew after him, pumping my arms, eyes fastened to the back of his t-shirt.
Slowly, slowly, I gained on him.
The cottage stairs were in view. I sailed passed him, smiling, as my feet ascended step one, step two…
Suddenly, I was tumbling backwards, the back of my Puddle-duck shirt in his clutches. He yanked me down and I landed in a heap, while he climbed past me, flinging open the cottage door and yelling:
Hey everyone! I beat Kristin in a race! His skinny arms were pumping, Rocky Balboa-style.
I sprang up, flung open the cottage door, and yelled:
I’ve had it! He is a liar and a cheat! He did not win fair and square. I have had it!
And with that, I marched to my bedroom and closed the door.
I was generally a quiet girl. A rule-follower. I did not seek to rock any boat. A people-pleaser to the hilt.
Until that moment.
For my family to witness this display of outrage over years of injustice was nothing less than shocking.
The story of the race, and what truly happened spilled from my brother’s lips. The silence in that living room following my pronouncement was deafening.
But guess what?
He never bothered me again.
The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.
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