IMG_5950In my family there was a rule- when giving a book as a gift, you had to write something in it. It didn’t have to be much-Merry Christmas, or Happy Birthday or something. I wasn’t sure my older brother Ed knew the rule. The likelihood that he would ever give anyone a book as a gift was pretty slight. He wasn’t into reading. He loved music though, and he would often get me music I would never have dreamed of buying.

On Christmas day 1979 my brother Ed gave me a book.

Ed and I  had been estranged for about three years. There was an incident with a cupcake. But it was a serious incident with a cupcake, hence the three year estrangement.

I turned twenty in October of that year. I was still living at Mum and Dad’s place, I’d just come back from Ireland. I was dreading Christmas, as I usually did. I might have enjoyed it more if I had buried the hatchet with Ed , instead of spending Christmas dinners not talking to him across the table-a stereotypical Irish stubborn streak.

The book broke the ice. I had been a rocket nerd growing up. I had a huge model of the Saturn 5 that I would use to illustrate the whole moon mission to visitors. I wrote away for a picture of Armstrong, Collins and Aldrin and nearly came out of my skin the day  I received the 8×10 glossies in an envelope with the NASA letterhead.

The choice of book was perfect. He knew I would love it. He probably hadn’t stepped into a bookstore in years. It was a remarkably thoughtful gift. I realized that he loved me, and I remembered that I loved him.

As per the rule, he had written something on the blank facing page . It was simple,  it said  ” Remember when you wanted to be an astronaut “.  At the time I thought of it as  ” Remember when you wanted to be an astronaut-well, here’s a book about some people who became astronauts”, and that was great.

A few years later, however, I was moving house. I was going through a rough patch in my career, not finding the inspiration I needed. I was packing books in boxes and opened the cover to the Right Stuff and there it was ” Remember when you wanted to be an astronaut”. I did a face slap. Of course, that was what Ed was trying to tell me- he meant, remember, because that was a time in your life when you were filled with energy and enthusiasm . If I remembered that feeling, it would inspire me.

He got a kick out of it when I told him about the reinterpretation.

A couple of days ago, I went to find the book, because there was some point of fact I wanted to check. My nine year old had a question about the space program he wanted answered. I opened the book and there was the inscription, “Remember when you wanted to be an astronaut”.  I realized that, now, the inscription meant-remember that feeling so that you can relate to your son better. Remember that he’s at the age you were then. My parents encouraged my love of rocketry,

IMG_5951and though it didn’t lead to a life of science, it served some purpose that fed my nine year old soul.

We lost Ed last year, and I haven’t been processing whatever it is you are supposed to process when a sibling dies. But I take comfort that he is still sending me messages from a single line he wrote in a book he gave me almost 40 years ago. I love that I have suddenly discovered just how wise he was.



Posted in Musings, personal history.


  1. Hi James. How wonderfully reassuring to remember that words on paper live forever and carry with them the voice of those who wrote them and all so often knew us better than we know ourselves. I am very sorry that you lost your brother and so glad for you that you have found him again in the eternity that is unconditional and kind. Be well.

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