One of my first memories as a child was an image of my big brother, Frank. He was 10 years older than I, and his prized possession seemed to be a bottle of Heinz ketchup. No matter what meal our mother put on the table, that bottle of ketchup stood near my brother's plate.
I don't honestly know whether Frank was territorial about its placement on the table, that hardly mattered. It was simply acknowledged as his property. He would refresh the mountain at the side of his plate or top off whatever ketchup had been eaten off his food so far.
I looked to my brother as a junior parent since he taught me numbers and the letters of the alphabet. I always tried to emulate him, but his love of ketchup was our great divide.
I remember one summer evening when I was about 3 years old, my mother and father joined forces to grill some hamburgers outdoors for dinner. My mom prepared a plate for me, cutting up all the food into bite-sized pieces. As I took my first bite of food, Frank zoomed in and poured ketchup over my entire plate.
He urged me to try it, "It's really good! Go ahead and eat." I struggled to clean my plate even though I couldn't stand the taste. Feeling very queasy, I ran to my mother and got sick all over her lap. Everyone remained silent but glared at Frank with an accusatory look as if to say, "Now see what you've done?"
My cousins Bobby and Vinny would often visit to have a playdate with Frank. We had a big yard where they could conjure up the highest order of mischief.
Once they broke an enormous bay window of our neighbor's house. Frank had hit a homerun right into the family's treasured-antique-filled living room. Yes, big trouble ensued that required top secrecy from all the boys involved and all innocent bystanders who could be hoodwinked into the rescue. Despite the fact that our neighbor was a high-ranking officer of Corning glass, he insisted that Frank pay the cost of the window replacement as well as the installation.
We kids were sworn to secrecy — we promised not to let our parents know anything of the episode. Several evenings a week Frank would instruct me to ask our father for money to buy some Good Humor ice cream. He would give me a fist full of nickels, and I would pretend to run to the truck to buy my popsicle. Frank was always standing there ready to collect.
In later years I would refer to this period as "our summer without popsicles." It took several months of collection by all the kids in our family and loyal friends to buy the new window, but we did it! It was one of the happiest days of our childhood. What a relief!
On yet another playdate my cousins and Frank had thrown some heavy rope around the low branches of our cherry and apple trees to make swings for themselves. They tried swinging with the rope around their hands, but that became tiring so they made nooses. When they began to swing by their necks my mother stepped out into the garden. She was mortified and shouted for the boys to bring all the ropes to her immediately.
The next thing I recall was the day we drove my brother to Peekskill Military Academy. By that time I was 6 years old. A few days before our trip, I walked to our local supermarket to buy a bottle of Heinz ketchup. I wrapped it for him and presented it Frank as a going-away present. I missed him so much. Our house didn't seem the same anymore — it was way too quiet. In honor of his first summer vacation back at home, I baked him a white cake from a Pillsbury mix and decorated it with ketchup icing. He loved it!
Frank eventually went on to West Point and died a general. At his wake, I sneaked a little plastic packet of ketchup into the pocket of the uniform in which he was buried. I hope that was OK with God. I'd hate to think of my brother in heaven for eternity without any ketchup.