A Big Chocolate Bar but No Free Lunch: Old Friends, Milestone Events, and Life Lessons

A Big Chocolate Bar but No Free Lunch:
Old Friends, Milestone Events, and Life Lessons


Graduation, marriage, the birth of a child, these are clearly milestone events. But there are other such occasions, which are much less prominent, perhaps even entirely private to us, which are also deeply significant, for they denote moments of awareness or dawning recognition, instances when something new in us is born. These occasions are invariably interactions, often with another person, but sometimes with an animal or some quickening in nature or life. They are always relational, an important intersection in our existence, a hearkening, a point when something speaks to us, even if its meaning doesn’t announce itself until years later.

Looking back at some of these private moments in my life, ones sparked by or which I shared with other individuals, I’m struck by the force—the simple and fundamental being—of the other. This force lives on. These people became fellow-travelers in my journey, companions along the way. One such person has been gently haunting me for a few years now. Whether it is him or simply the milestone intersections in which he appears as a permanent fixture in my mental life—in my Self story—something has been calling out to me for expression and wider recognition.

His name was Brian. He was my friend David’s older brother. David and I were especially good friends during our elementary school years. We had many adventures as well as some memorable misadventures. The latter often served as life lessons in the long, many-step process of growing up. I will tell you about two of these misadventures momentarily. But first I must tell you about Brian, who was three and a half years our senior and who, in truth, I hardly knew.

Given the difference in our ages, it’s not surprising that our lives generally ran on different tracks that rarely intersected. Of the handful of always short encounters we shared, three stand out, each of them a signpost for me in my maturation and awakening, first as a kid and later as an adolescent. Brian helped to civilize me and to broaden my horizons.

There was a time when I was six or so and my anger and uncontrolled temper obliterated the age difference between us. I have no idea what provoked me, but I clearly remember, stick in hand, chasing Brian out of the vacant lot where a bunch of us were playing. I ran after him across the street, into his yard, across the lawn, and up the front steps of his house. I caught up to him atop the stairs on the stoop. I had him, but the situation also had me. When I saw his fear—fear sparked by my rage and the chase—everything changed. The stick I was carrying was suddenly pointless and embarrassing. I noted, and more particularly felt, all this as we regarded each other, at first with “What now?” intensity, then with a brief wariness, and finally with a few moments of peaceful acceptance as we recognized the paroxysm of our intertwined emotions had passed. Brian went inside the house and I departed, likely back to the vacant lot.

The second time Brian marked the path of my personal journey, I was probably eleven or twelve and still in elementary school in Grade 6 or 7. Brian would have been fifteen or sixteen and in Grade 10 or 11. This time our difference in age and in experience of the world came very much into play. I was gobsmacked by Brian’s behaviour. It was a Saturday morning and a few of us—me, my younger brothers, and some of our friends—were playing road hockey on our driveway. During a break in the action I stood atop the drive close to the sidewalk and I saw Brian striding purposefully up the sidewalk on the other side of the street. He didn’t seem to notice us for he was deeply engaged not only in where he was going but even more, it seemed to me, in anticipation of what he’d soon be doing. He had a joyful flush about him. That is how I now recall him in those moments, although I freely admit that how I’ve apprehended that fleeting experience has evolved over the years. For example, while I always recognized his happy expectation, it wasn’t always foremost in my understanding. What shocked and appalled me in that first instance was that he was willingly going to school on a Saturday! In later years I came to know how his participation in the Drama Club—and whatever its current production might have been—could spark and sustain such ardour. I also came to appreciate that, by his example, Brian revealed a new world of possibility to me; indeed, he became an avatar of that possibility. The fact that he died too young, an early casualty of the AIDS epidemic, froze and memorialized him in this role for me.

Compared to my rare encounters with Brian, David and I were thick as thieves and spent great swathes of time together. What I view as our two most notable misadventures occurred when we were eight or nine or ten. David’s mother was an important participant in aspects of these events. In one case I was entirely at fault, in the other David broke a rule I didn’t even know existed. In 2017, during a telephone conversation with his 94-year old mother, she told me that the rule in question prohibited David from riding his bicycle on the north side of Oak Bay Avenue, the community’s main thoroughfare; he was supposed to stay “on our side” of that line of demarcation. Moreover, she presumed that my parents had laid down the same rule for me, which they had not. In February 1960, when I was eight, my Dad typed up a list of eighteen rules I was to obey. The only thing the list said about my bicycle, which was probably a recent purchase and only a few months old at that point, was that I had to bring it in at night. I don’t recall any other rules being laid down after that.

There were levels to our bicycle misadventure. One was that it occurred north of Oak Bay Avenue. Far worse was that David was hit by a car. I have partial rather than comprehensive memory of what happened. I presume that the driver of the car stopped, that people emerged from houses by the road where the accident took place, that an ambulance was called, arrived, and took David to the hospital, but I don’t remember any of this. What I do remember is bicycling to David’s house, knocking on the door, and telling his mother:

“David was hit by a car…. It’s only his leg.”

If that isn’t exactly what I said, it’s probably very close to it. And thank heavens for the momentary after-thought of those last four words. Although they were prompted by the shock and fear I saw on his mother’s face, I’m not sure I can take full credit for them. It would not surprise me if my quick and clear thinking was helped along by a beneficent other-worldly presence.

Those latter words meant a lot to David’s mother. She saw to it that I was amply rewarded. Sometime later, having been asked to go to their back door, she presented me with a large-size chocolate bar, one that would have cost about fifty cents in those days compared to ten or fifteen cents for a regular-size bar. I was so struck by the size of her gift that it served to confuse my recollection of some of these events and caused me to think I’d delivered the news at the back door, too.

“No,” she corrected me during our phone conversation, “you told me at the front door and I gave you the chocolate bar at the back door.”

Why did that big chocolate bar have such an outsized effect on me, not in the immediate aftermath of what occurred, but in my later recall of it? Me and that chocolate bar became a second story to the first one of David and the accident, and the second even seemed to eclipse the first in some ways, which, when I thought about it, felt preposterous and petty. Of course, all this was restricted to my mind; it certainly wasn’t the general reality. And I knew there was something warped in this private perspective of mine. I knew I had visited David during his convalescence at home: I have a clear memory of being impressed almost to the point of stupefaction by the size of the scab on his damaged lower leg. Happily, he recovered nicely and went on to run, high-jump, play tennis, and various team supports, always at a high level.

It was in writing about and wrestling with all this that I finally figured out the special meaning of that chocolate bar. The answer was blindingly obvious. I had understood on one level but not on another. It was a question of sensitivity. In rudimentary terms, my grasp of the subtle had to catch up to, then overtake, both my gluttonous big eyes and the gastronomic appreciation of my stomach. That chocolate bar was a proxy for the true second story, which was the cushioning grace of those four extra words when I announced the news of David’s accident to his mother.

Our second misadventure brought injuries of a different sort. Miss Smart was the receptionist in my father’s medical office, which was attached to our house. She started in this position sometime after my first birthday and became known to me and my brothers as Auntie Jenny. Unmarried, she was one of the most important people in our lives. She babysat us, took each of us on occasion for sleepovers at her parents’ home where she lived, and she took us to lunches and movies downtown as well as on short trips to Vancouver, Port Angeles, and Seattle. Her generosity was such that I regarded it like a genie in a bottle, a genie from whom I could get whatever I wanted whenever I pleased. Such presumption was ripe for correction.

It was another Saturday morning and Auntie was working her usual half-day before starting her weekend at mid-day. I proposed to David that Auntie would take us to lunch. He thought this was a great idea. We headed down the street to tell his mother. This led to a complication for she required that David be bathed, polished, and decked out in a blazer and tie. When the two of them finally reappeared, they were both well satisfied with what had been wrought. David smiled widely and seemed to glow with cleanliness in his smart attire, while his mother beamed at her handsome son.

I was pleased, too. My idea was working out beautifully. Then I uttered the fateful words, “Now, let’s go ask Auntie.” A sudden darkness crossed the face of David’s mother. If looks could kill, I would have been dead then and there. With prodigious haste, I was brusquely ushered out the front door—likely for my own safety.

As I walked down the driveway I was briefly numb and nonplussed by the abruptness with which the tables had turned. But momentarily, not long after I reached the sidewalk, a never-to-be-forgotten realization occurred to me:

“You should have asked Auntie first.”

The truth of this—both the specific lesson and the wider experience of that moment of awakening—settled deep within.

Once David and I got to junior high school in 1964, our lives became less entwined. When my Granny Poppette moved in with us the next year and Mom and Dad had bedrooms and a rec room built in the basement for “the boys,” David kept track of the construction’s progress. Having heard about all this, Brian dropped by one day in 1966 to check-out the finished product. I remember his verdict on my new bedroom.

“Everything fits so nicely,” he remarked, as he stood in my doorway surveying the room, its furnishings, and its carefully placed decorations, all of which reflected who I was then.

I was pleased to have his validation and approval.

I’m pretty sure that was the last time I saw him.

While all our lives moved on—Brian’s for a shorter duration than the rest of us—the memorable times I spent with each of them continue to speak to me across the years, timeless lodestars from childhood and adolescence that have taken their sparkling, special places in the firmament that lights my life.

An author and historian, Patrick Wolfe lives in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada.

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