It was a skirt...not just your ordinary, run of the mill skirt, but the most hideous, ugliest, gaudiest skirt ever to exist on the planet. Stuff that legends are made of and it became a legend of sorts in our family.
The story began many years before the skirt existed. Tom was the eldest brother; the one each younger sibling looked up to. He was 5 years old before the next child was born and had gained all the worldly wisdom he would ever need to become the expert big brother. Tom was 7 when I was born. His first sister and the beginning of a fan club that would last a lifetime. My earliest memories are in Alaska where we spent our childhood, tagging along behind Tom and Freddie, playing with baby brother David and doing my best to be one of the boys. Harsh reality set in when they informed me I was a girl. The lowest in the food chain of humanity according to them. This was the 1950's. We were blissfully unenlightened to the "I Am Woman, Hear Me Roar" theory. It was a time of innocence that unfortunately we have lost for all time.
The innocence of our childhood was shattered forever when our parents, for reasons never understood by children of any generation, decided it was time for their marriage to end. While Mother's life went in one direction with a new husband and 3 younger children, she had less and less time for Tom, Freddie, David and myself. We were older. Dad's life took him far from Alaska to the deep south of Georgia where he would also start over again. Life that was once consistent and predictable became chaotic and unpredictable. Our safety net of family was suddenly pulled from underneath us and we were, as many children are, torn from that sanctuary called home. One group of children went with one parent while the others stayed with the other parent. Life would never be the same again.
It the midst of all of the confusion, there was one constant. Tom was still our big brother. He became much more through the years. As our parents went on with life, Tom became our parent, our friend, our counselor, our hero. As the years passed and we grew into adulthood, his role only increased. He was the one who made sense of the chaos and confusion. He was the voice of reason and more than anything, he was the voice of laughter that held us together through the years. Nothing could happen that he could not find humor in. Where there was Tom, there was laughter and joy. Loud, booming, raucous, atmosphere shaking laughter. No one else got the last word when it came to humor. He always found a way to one up anyone....To have the last laugh.....That is until "The Skirt."
As adults we would try to visit Mother together. She is in her 80's and still a marathon talker. Like the proverbial baton in the marathon, we would "pass her off" to one another when we had listened for too long. The classic look that told that the listener needed to be relieved was a glassy eyed stare and drool dribbling down their chin. Everyone knew that it was time to pass the baton. One of the last trips Tom and I and our families took together was to see Mother. All day she rambled with stories from her past, our past, relative's pasts, total stranger's pasts. Toward the end of the day she went to the bedroom and came out with "The Skirt."
Mother's taste had always run to the gaudy side of life,something on the order of a deranged gypsy, but she really had outdone herself this time. Bought for 25c at a garage sale, this one was a nightmare of garish oranges, browns & yellows. All in an abstract Aztec pattern with three huge ruffles. In her words to my sister-in-law Pat and I, "Now you girls are going to fight over who gets this skirt all the way home!" NO, we were going to fight all the way home over who had to take the ugly creature. No one wanted to lay claim to it, but there it was in all of its glory. So, for a hundred miles home, we laughed and threatened to do bodily harm to the first one who dared try to foist "The Skirt" off on the other.
When we arrived home, Tom circled me like a vulture watching his prey, making sure that "The Skirt" didn't end up in his car on the way home as I had offered so graciously. I told him I would sacrifice this great family heirloom to him. He, the gentleman that he was insisted that I, the eldest sister should have it. Back and forth we went until it was time for them to leave. Slipping the skirt to him was a work of art if I do say so myself. As we walked out to the car to say our goodbyes, he was checking every part of his car to make sure that Sis hadn't somehow secreted it away. What he didn't notice in all of his searching was that Sis had the skirt tucked under her arm. It just sort of jumped into their trunk as Pat was packing and chatting. She even helped tuck it in and never saw it. Patted it right down in the suitcase between layers of underwear and blue jeans. Ahhhh, the satisfaction of being the first to pass on "The Skirt" knew no bounds on that day. The legend of "The Skirt" had begun.
True to his character, Tom never mentioned it to me. I knew payback time was coming. Through the years, "The Skirt" showed up at the strangest places and times. It was a game of who would end up with it last. Tom swore it wouldn't be him. Tom would have it a while, then suddenly it would be at my house without my knowing quite how it got there. "The Skirt" was a great traveler, ending up at Fred's house in North Carolina on occasion and then back at Tom's. It never stayed long at any one place until toward the end. The last two years of the skirt's life as it had known it was spent with Tom. No amount of pleading and cajoling would get him to give it up. He was dogmatic that "The Skirt" was his and he would have the last word on where it went. He smelled a rat and knew Sis was up to something. After two long years of negotiations, he finally gave it up. It was mine....All mine!
In 1988 Tom suffered a brain aneurysm. What the doctors said would have killed a normal man, he survived. Just went to prove our point that Tom was not normal. We had known that for years and these hot shot neurosurgeon had to go through years of Medical School to tell us this! Tom was hospitalized in Dallas and underwent brain surgery to correct the problem. Fred was able to fly in during a business trip to be with us during that very frightening time. We three were together again and the hero was wounded.
After many days in the hospital, Tom was finally released. He left the hospital with his pride and joy, "The Hat" on his head, fashioned from "The Skirt" that he had so foolishly returned to his equally abnormal sister. Not just an ordinary hat. It was embellished with bells hanging all round it, "Tom" spelled out in sequins across the brim, holly leaves and a big red Christmas ornament hanging from the top. Somewhat like a traveling bordello. The only thing it lacked was running lights and one of those little dogs whose head bobs when you move. He was decked out and proud of it! Would have made any red-blooded redneck jealous!
Tom and his sweet, devoted wife Pat and their son Matthew and his older sons, "Little Tom" and Robert, went through over a year of personal hell as he struggled to regain what brain surgery had altered. He eventually dragged his way up with their help and went back to his management job at GTE in Garland, Texas.
"The Hat" made from "The Skirt" was his trophy. It was the only piece of that rag that he had to threaten me with. I had custody of the rest and plans for every thread of it. The next and what was to be his last Christmas, his gift from his "Twisted Sister" was to be a hog fashioned from "The Skirt." Not just any hog, but Homer T. Hawg. The "T" stood for Thomas, Mr. Hawg's namesake.
Sis got out her handy-dandy sewing machine and whipped out a "Homer T" for Tom. made out of what else??? The Skirt! The Christmas Homer was a two legged, one eyed, tail-less hog. He had a story attached to his neck. Something about a crazy woman with gaudy taste named Paulina Conchita Guacamole who fell hard for poor hapless Homer and ended up not only stealing his heart, but carrying off his tail as well. Our Mother's name is Pauline and we thought there might be a connection there.
In the time Tom was ill, I began the hobby of cross stitching to while away the hours. In that time I stitched up a hog or two and named them Homer T. for Tom. The best was "Homer T. and His Hawg-Wild Country Band." Of course, there was also a "Eat at Homer T's," complete with hawgburgers and hawgdawgs. Tom appreciated the distinct sick humor that we seemed to have down to an art.
In the fall of 1990, I came home from work to find my husband and several of my friends at our home. Tom was gone. At 47 he had sat back in his chair at work and gone to sleep forever from a heart valve shutting down. Our fill in parent, our counselor, our hero was gone. The news literally took my feet out from underneath me. Heroes don't die. Tom couldn't be gone. He was my only sane link to my past and now he was gone. The laughter stopped.
While I was beyond consolation, somehow I found something to hang onto in that dark hour. In the last year of his life my brother gave his heart to the Lord. He would call me and tell me how much he loved Jesus. Even when he was going through rehabilitation therapy Tom would have his Bible tucked under his arm and tell his fellow patients of the goodness of God. My brother was gone, but I knew exactly where to find him.
A few hours later we were at his home helping Pat plan funeral services for the man that we had all worshipped. The air that his voice had once filled was now filled with a deafening silence. Nothing was more bizarre that to think that he was never going to walk in that room again; that we would never again hear his booming laughter ringing in the air. We went through his closet to pick out the clothes he would be laid to rest in. In the closet we found two of his prized possessions. "The Hat" and Homer T. Hawg.....Both made from "The Skirt." All I could do was hold them and weep for my big brother who would never laugh with me again.
There was one thing I could do however. One final parting shot that only he and his warped sense of humor would appreciate. Before we took his clothing to the funeral home, I sat in a back room and snipped a piece of the fabric from "The Hat." Inside of the jacket, right over his heart, I sewed a patch of "The Skirt" and embroidered, "Sis" next to it. Through my tears, I got the last laugh. He told me I would be the last one to get "The Skirt." He was wrong. He did. He took that and a great portion of our hearts with him on the day he left us. It is my firm belief that one day I will walk through the gates of Heaven to find Tom waiting for me with a robe made from...."The Skirt." My brother would never let me get the last laugh.
As I was sewing the patch to leave over Tom's heart, our other brother Fred was preparing what would be the most heart wrenching sermon of his life; The funeral sermon for our beloved brother. These were only but small parting gestures of the love we shared for and with our brother.
When Tom was laid to rest, he took with him laughter that we had shared for years with that ugly skirt and a thousand other stories. But, he left a legacy of joyful memories with his family and friends. I will always remember our father on the day of Tom's funeral service, sitting in Tom's recliner reading the story of Homer T. Hawg and laughing until tears rolled down his cheeks. Truly, as the Bible speaks of so profoundly, laughter did good as a medicine on that day. It was laughter that made us all survivors in this life and saw us through that terrible time as well. Tom left remnants of his sense of humor in his children that I'm sure will be passed on to his grandchildren and for generations to come.
Remnants of "The Skirt" are tucked away in my fabric box. Homer now resides with Fred. As for "The Hat," it is in my closet. There are times still after all these years that I can't bear to look at it and I bury it under something. Then there are times that I look at it and I can hear Tom's laughter again and him saying in all of his Big Brother wisdom, "Sis, you just may as well laugh." Family heirlooms don't have to have monetary value. Some things are priceless, just as was that 25c ugly skirt.