MY BROTHER SAYS he holds no grudge from when we were kids jumping a barbed wire fence and I tripped him and put a 6-inch gash in his leg.

It's enough, he says, to know that I will one day burn in hell for it. I think he's joking. But I'm not sure.He's the youngest of my mother's four children. I was 7 when he was born. At 43, he is still my baby brother, even if we haven't been together much in the 30 years since I left the South for California.

He was just a boy when he had to fly to my wedding, God bless him, with our mother, who sank her claws in his arm and screamed, "Lordy God, we're going down!" before the plane even left the ground.

He says he forgave me for that, too. But, again, I'm not sure. The scar on his arm is worse than the one on his leg. Maybe I should burn in hell.

After I married, I didn't go back to visit often. Seems I was always busy having babies or doing laundry.

In my absence, much to my surprise, without any help or guidance from me, my brother grew up to be a man. He finished high school, went to work as a carpenter and married his longtime sweetheart. (Her name is the same as mine, which can get a bit confusing, but I refuse to be called "Big Sharon.")

Pretty soon he was running his own business, wheeling and dealing, building palaces for rich people the way we once built playhouses in the woods.

My mother was so proud of him she could hardly stand it. But that didn't stop her from being who she was - a woman who could lash out as readily as she could love. They had a "falling out" that led to a "parting of the ways."

Never mind what it was over. The what seldom matters - or is even remembered - so much as the how and the why. For my brother, it was enough. And for too long a time, they barely spoke to each other.

Two years ago, as she lay dying, I got him to come to her hospital room. Then I stood by his side, my hand on his big shoulder as he hugged her and told her goodbye.

That alone ought to be enough, don't you think, to keep me from burning in hell?

Last winter when my husband died, my brother flew out for the service, along with his wife and our sister. They stayed with me a week, an immeasurable comfort. Before they left, we all agreed to take a vacation together.

So here we are in Mexico, the four of us. Big Sister and Little Sharon are napping in the sun. Baby Brother and I are playing in the water. I'm wedged into an inner tube, cool and mostly dry, while he steers me about the pool like a tugboat pulling a steamer.

We talk about our lives; houses he wants to build, stories I want to write. He tells me what it was like for him growing up poor, knowing people who thought he'd never amount to much. It feels good, he says, grinning, to know he proved those people wrong.

And I grin, too, because I know exactly how he feels.

Then we notice the sun is setting. Little Sharon and Big Sister have gone in to eat.

"Push me to the edge of the pool," I say, "so I don't have to get wet."

"Nah," he says, "I think I'm just gonna flip you."

So he does.

I get very wet.

I swallow half the pool.

But at least now I know I won't burn in hell alone.