Jacksonville, North Carolina
My cousin Lindsey rolled down her window and leaned out, waving, as her husband Jake pulled away from my Uncle Doug’s house. “Good night! Merry Christmas!”
We waved back, responding in kind – Uncle Doug and Aunt Linda, my dad, my cousin Carly and her husband Mike, and Pete and me. Jake’s tail lights flared as he reached the road, then the car turned and was gone.
We trooped back into the house, stopping in the kitchen. Carly distributed adult beverages and we gathered around the huge island in the center of the room. Linda asked, “Who’s going fishing in the morning?”
Dad said, “I am. Doug, you’re coming, right?”
I said, “Pete and I will go.”
Carly said, “We’re going. Looks like you’re the only one staying home, Mom.”
Aunt Linda grinned. “Yes. I’ll get some peace and quiet for a few hours.”
I asked hesitantly, “Will Tanner come?”
Uncle Doug said, “Yes. He’s bringing Sarge. Is that okay?”
I hadn’t seen or spoken to my cousin Tanner, my Uncle Dennis’s son, since his younger brother Tyler’s wedding last summer. Tanner had crashed the rehearsal dinner, strung out on drugs, intending to cause trouble. His older brothers and I had intervened and prevented an ugly scene. Once we’d hauled him outdoors, Tanner had suffered a grand mal seizure and was hospitalized.
After detoxing in the hospital, Tanner moved here from Virginia and had been in rehab ever since. For the past six weeks he’d been in an outpatient program, under Doug and Linda’s supervision. He was working for a friend of Doug’s, mowing lawns and learning handyman skills. He was staying at a halfway house for now, but would be moving in with Doug and Linda in January.
During the last two conversations I’d had with him, Tanner had called me a faggot and a few other choice terms. I knew he was under the influence both times, but the encounters hadn’t engendered warm and fuzzy feelings on my part.
Now I said, “Sure.”
Carly said, “Don’t worry. He’ll behave with Sarge there.”
Sarge was our grandfather, who at 92 was still formidable enough to scare the devil out of his grandchildren. I said, “I’m not worried. He’s not gonna start anything.”
Doug said, “No, he isn’t. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the new and improved Tanner.”
I had my doubts about that, but I didn’t express them.
For as long as I could remember, Brodie family tradition dictated that we fished on Christmas morning. Christmas Eve saw the family gather for dinner and gifts; Christmas Day was Santa Claus and fishing. We were all adults now, but we still had fishing.
When we were kids, Dad and Sarge had taken Jeff, Kevin and me to the Oceanside pier every Christmas morning. We’d baited our poles and sat, our little-kid legs dangling over the edge, waiting for a bite. We almost never caught anything, but it didn’t matter. It was the tradition that counted.
For the past couple of years, Pete and I had been driving from Tucson to Oceanside on Christmas morning. We’d missed out on fishing with Dad, Kevin, Jeff, Val, and my nephews. This year we’d gone to Tucson for Thanksgiving, so were free to come to Jacksonville for Christmas. I wished Jeff and Kevin were here, but neither of them could get enough time off work.
Carly and Mike lived in Wilmington, sixty miles to the south, but they were spending tonight at Doug and Linda’s. We all wanted to get an early start in the morning.
Pete and I were sleeping in my cousin Shana’s old room. Shana was Lindsey and Carly’s oldest sister, and lived in Germany with her husband and kids. Once we’d turned in and were snuggled deep in flannel sheets, Pete asked, “Are you sure Tanner won’t make trouble?”
“I don’t know that he’ll be delighted to see me, but no. I don’t think he’ll make trouble with Doug, Dad, and Grampa all there. If it was just him and me it might be different.”
I felt Pete grin against the side of my head. “You could take him, I bet.”
I chuckled. “Oh, yeah. You’ve never seen him, have you?”
“I guess not. I missed his entrance at the rehearsal dinner. Is he small, like Tyler?”
“Not as small, but he’s considerably shorter than me.” My uncle Dennis, Dad and Doug’s middle brother, had missed out on the Brodie height. As a result, all four of his sons were under six feet.
Another grin. “I suppose Tyler and Blair won’t go fishing in the morning.”
I laughed out loud at that one. “Can you imagine? Tyler might have seen a fishing pole at some point in his life. I doubt he’s ever touched one.”
“Dennis didn’t continue the tradition with his kids?”
“Dennis was divorced from their mothers by the time his kids were big enough to hold fishing poles.” Dennis’s sons Will and Henry were by his first wife, Corinne; Tanner and Tyler were by his second wife, Marilyn. Dennis was now on his fourth wife, Toni, whom we all fervently hoped would be the final iteration. “Did your dad take you and Steve fishing?”
“A few times, to Elizabeth Lake. But Steve got bored with it fast and would start whining, so that ended it.”
“Did you have a boat?”
“Yeah, an ancient, beat-up metal bucket with an awful motor that was always stranding us. Dad eventually gave up and ditched it. Did you guys have one?”
“No, but the Fortners did.” My friend Ali’s parents. “That’s how Kev and I learned to waterski.”
“You had a fun childhood.”
I tugged him closer so that his head rested on my shoulder. Pete’s childhood had been anything but fun. “Yeah. I did.”
When our alarm sounded at 6:15 am, I could already smell coffee and bacon. By 6:30 Pete and I were showered and dressed. We gathered at the kitchen island again, where Linda handed out bacon biscuits and thermoses full of coffee. Forty-five minutes later, we pulled into the parking area at the Bogue Inlet Fishing Pier on Emerald Isle.
Doug, Dad and Mike went into the bait shop while Carly distributed gear from the back of Doug’s SUV. I was working out the best way to balance a beach chair, fishing pole, cooler and thermos when a battered Kia parked two spots away. As I turned toward it, my grandfather and Tanner emerged.
I lowered my burden to the ground and hugged my grandfather. Tanner went straight to Carly, shooting me a weak smile as he did. Sarge greeted Pete warmly and said to me, “Tanner wants to talk to you.”
“Um – okay?”
Dad and Mike returned from the shop, bearing buckets of bait. Dad and Sarge exchanged a backslapping hug, and Dad spoke to Tanner, shaking his hand. Whatever he said made Tanner smile a bit more widely.
Doug appeared with one more bait bucket. “Hey, Dad, Tanner. Everyone got their gear?”
We responded with a chorus of “Yes, sir.” Having retired as a colonel, Doug outranked the rest of us.
“All right, let’s move out.” Doug led the way toward the pier.
Tanner hung back, edging toward me hesitantly. “Hey, Jamie.”
“Hey, Tanner. How’s it going?”
“Good. Everything is – better than good.”
“That’s what Doug was telling me. I’m happy to hear that you’re doing well.”
His expression was skeptical but hopeful. “Are you? Seriously?”
“Of course. You’re family, Tanner. I’d never wish bad things on you.”
“You should, after all the things I’ve said to you.”
I began to respond, and he held up his hand to stop me. “Listen… I want to apologize to you.” He began talking faster, in a rush to get it all out. “For whatever I said to you at Tyler’s wedding, which I don’t remember, and for calling you to ask for money. That was messed up. I was messed up.”
I said, “I know. Apology accepted.”
He sagged with relief. “You mean it?”
“Yeah, I mean it. You said it, you were messed up.”
He kicked at a pebble morosely. “I sure was.”
I tried to steer the conversation in a positive direction. “Doug says you’re working.”
“Yeah. I’m mowing lawns, mostly. But I’m also taking a class at Coastal Carolina Community College.”
“Oh, he didn’t mention that. What class are you taking?”
“It’s kind of an orientation class. How to be successful in college. Study skills, time management, computer skills, all that.”
“Sounds good. Do you have a specific program in mind?”
“Not yet. I’m thinking about HVAC.”
“Always a need for that in the South.”
He grinned. “True. It’s good for me, being here. Getting out of Virginia. Mom and Dad had given up on me, I think.”
I said, “They’d never give up on you. I think they just didn’t know what else to do.”
“Maybe you’re right. Anyway. Between Doug, Linda and Grampa, I’m gettin’ back on my feet.”
“That’s great, Tanner. I am really happy to hear that.”
“Thank you. That means a lot to me. Of course, Carly’s mean as ever…”
Carly, walking a few feet ahead of us, turned in mock outrage. “Mean? I’ll show you mean, Tanner Brodie.”
Tanner laughed. It was good to hear him laugh. “Anyway. Thanks, Jamie. I’m glad you’re here.”
“Me too. You hang in there.”
“I will.” He lowered his voice. “I know everyone expects me to screw up again.”
“I don’t believe that. I didn’t get that impression from Doug or Linda at all.”
“Well, maybe not them. But my immediate family does. I can tell.” Tanner swallowed hard. “When I talk to Mom or Dad, I hear it in their voices. They encourage me, but they don’t think I’ll make it.”
“But they hope you do. They’re praying you do.”
“I guess.” His face twisted a bit. “Will and Henry just lecture me. And Tyler won’t even talk to me. Damn caller ID – he won’t even answer the phone.”
“Tanner, listen. Your mom and dad just want you to get healthy. They’re worried because of your history, but they support you 110%. And so does Grampa, and so does my dad. You know that, right?”
He nodded. “Yeah.”
“And Will and Henry – they’re doctors. Lecturing people is what they do. They do it because they want you to succeed. Right?”
“I guess.” He huffed a laugh. “Will came down here and inspected the rehab facility. I guess it had to meet his standards.”
“See? What does that tell you? And listen – don’t worry about Tyler. He’s got his own issues.” Tyler was a lobbyist for the Nature Conservancy. With an environmentally hostile administration taking over in D.C., he feared for his job.
Tanner’s expression was achingly hopeful. “Do you think he’ll ever forgive me?”
As a kid, Tanner had behaved horribly to Tyler, the only person in the family who was smaller and weaker. He’d seriously injured Tyler on a couple of occasions, one of which I’d witnessed. “I don’t know, Tanner. I hope so. I’ll talk to him, if you want.”
“Oh, would you? Please?”
“Thank you.” Tanner sighed deeply. “Thanks for talking to me.”
“You can call me whenever you want, Tan. I promise to answer. Unless I’m in the head or something.”
He laughed. “Okay. I’ll take you up on that. I’ve gotta talk to Uncle Dave now.”
Tanner trotted ahead of me. Pete, who’d been walking with Carly, dropped back. He said, “That sounds promising.”
“I hope so. What are his chances?”
Pete lowered his voice. “Relapse rates are high. Anywhere from 50 to 90%. But he’s been through rehab before, right?”
“Right. I don’t know how many times.”
“It’s similar to smoking. The more experience you have with trying to quit, the better you get at it.”
“He’s got more in his favor this time. Doug, Linda, and Grampa are right here with him. That was never the case before.”
“Family support improves his chances considerably. Am I reading it right, that Doug and your dad are far better parents than Dennis?”
I shrugged. “Uncle Denny put his career first. That’s why his marriages broke up. With Doug and Dad, family always came first.”
“Yet Will and Henry turned out well.”
“Will and Henry grew up in Roanoke, hundreds of miles away from Denny. They only saw him three or four times a year. Hugh, their stepdad, did a great job raising them.”
Pete nodded. “If Tanner has a decent therapist, they’ll ask Dennis and Marilyn to participate in Tanner’s counseling sessions. Will they take the time for that?”
“Marilyn and Cliff, absolutely.” Cliff was Tanner’s stepdad. “I think Denny will participate. I hope he will. Unless we’re at war with China or something.” Dennis was a Navy rear admiral, based at the Pentagon.
Pete grimaced. “God forbid.”
It took about twenty minutes for us to get settled – in our chairs, poles baited and secured to each chair, coffee in hand. Carly distributed more bacon biscuits from a hamper. Pete was to my left, Dad was to my right. I said to Dad, “We should call Kevin and Jeff while we’re out here.”
“We will.” Dad checked his watch. “Not for a couple of hours, though. You and Tanner got sorted out?”
I mumbled through a bite of biscuit. “Mm hm. Told him I’d talk to Ty for him.”
“Good. I’ll call Ty too.”
“You may get further with him than I will.”
“Maybe.” Dad shook his head. “Denny ought to be the one brokering between them, but he won’t.”
“Pete suggested that you and Doug are better parents than Denny.”
Dad snorted. “I’d like to think so. Denny meant well, but he was so frickin’ ambitious. I don’t know where he got that from. Neither of our parents pushed him that way.”
“Did you think about moving back here? After Mom died?”
“Sure. The whole family encouraged me to.”
“Why’d you decide against it?”
Dad sighed. “A couple of reasons. If I stayed at Pendleton, the Marine Corps would guarantee that they wouldn’t move me. If I transferred to Parris Island, they couldn’t promise that they’d let me stay. I didn’t want you guys to have a typical military childhood, getting jerked around all over the world.”
I shuddered. “We would have hated that.”
“I know. The other reason was that the schools were better in California. I wish you guys could have grown up with the rest of the family, but I wanted more for you than a South Carolina education.”
“You definitely accomplished that.”
Dad grinned. “Yes, I did.”
The fish weren’t biting, but we didn’t care. We finished the bacon biscuits and coffee, and I went to the Coke machine outside the bait shop and bought sodas for everyone. Pete stretched his legs out, leaned his head back, and fell asleep. The rest of us got up occasionally and walked around to keep the blood flowing, talking to the others. After a couple of hours had passed I called Kevin on FaceTime, and he and Jeff took turns talking to everyone.
After another hour the pier was starting to fill with people, seemingly testing the new fishing gear that Santa had brought them. Sarge and Doug conferred, then Doug stood. “Everyone ready to call it a day?”
We all agreed. No one had caught anything, and it was getting warm. We packed up our stuff and left the island, stopping on the way home for Chinese takeout. Another family tradition.
Once we’d eaten Sarge wanted a nap, and Tanner had to report back to the halfway house. We’d see Sarge once more before we left on Tuesday, but Tanner would be working tomorrow. I walked to the car with them and gave Tanner a friendly thump on the shoulder. “You take care of yourself.”
“I will. I promise.”
“Call me any time you want. And Dad and I will both talk to Ty.”
“I appreciate that so much.” To my surprise, Tanner hugged me. It was brief and loose, but it was a hug. “Thank you for listening. And supporting me. It means more than you know.”
“We’re family, Tan. We have each other’s backs, right?”
“Right.” He smiled, and I caught a glimpse of the cute, rowdy little boy I’d known growing up. “I lost track of that for a while. Never again.”
I smiled back at him. “Merry Christmas, Tanner.”
“You too.” He got in the car and drove away, waving.
Back in the house, Carly and Linda were in the kitchen, deep in conversation. Mother-daughter stuff, I supposed. Doug, Dad, and Mike were all in the family room, in the early stages of napping. I found Pete on the back porch glider, gazing through the screens at the pine trees lining the boundary fence.
I dropped beside him. “Whatcha thinking about?”
He smiled at me. “I was thinking about my own family. The holiday traditions that we have now? Those came from the Fernandez side.” Andy Fernandez was married to Christine, Pete’s sister. “We never had any of our own. My mother was always at church. Steve and I would spend the day playing with whatever toy we’d gotten. That was it. No other family, no dinner, no nothing.”
I squeezed his hand. “Ancient history, right? Now you have Andy’s family traditions and mine.”
He squeezed back. “Yup. And I’m gonna talk to Chris before next year. I don’t want you to miss any more Brodie Christmas fishing trips. I don’t want to miss any more of them. This has been the most relaxing Christmas Day I’ve ever had.”
“Aw. Thank you.” I scooted over so that we were touching, hip to hip, shoulder to shoulder. “That’s the best Christmas present ever.”
He kissed the tip of my ear then leaned his head against mine. “Merry Christmas, husband.”
I smiled. “Merry Christmas to you, husband. And many more.”