Bubble Lights
Brothers, Fathers, Friends and Lovers

Message in a bubble light tree

I’m going to write to my brother today for the first time in years.

There was no real occasion either for breaking off our correspondence. No fight or act of betrayal. It just happened. The gaps between our emails grew longer and longer until we reached the point where writing a letter was just too arduous because of all that stuff that had happened in the meantime and needed, or so I thought, to be woven into the letter. Stupid, I know. As if relationships were like endurance sports: you stop for three months and then have to start all over.

We were never good at keeping in touch, even when we lived closer than the continent and ocean now separating us. Maybe it had to do with growing up in a tight-knit extended family where most everybody lived within blocks of one another. We hadn’t learned any other way of nurturing contact than physically spending time together. I don’t think I ever saw my mother write a letter.

I visited him a few times in New York and he visited me a couple of times in Europe. And we once spent an idyllic week together on the Greek island of Sifnos. It was on this trip that he gave me a diary he had kept. All the entries were addressed to me, and in these poignant, at times tortured, at times beautiful texts he wrote of his love for me and his musings on brotherhood. The entries covered about a year, and during this period I doubt if we had exchanged more than a handful of phone calls.

It’s just coincidental that I’m sending it off on New Year’s Eve. Writing him was no New Year’s resolution, but rather something prompted by running across a piece on the history of the Noma bubble lights on the Web.   The lights, basically tubes of colored liquid that sit atop an incandescent bulb that heats the liquid and makes it bubble, were much a part of our Christmas, as were Lionel trains, homemade ravioli genovese, envelopes stuffed with a $10 bill that my uncle would leave out for us on the Christmas tree, and the Yule Log, a picture of a burning fireplace that New York TV-station WPIX broadcast for three hours during the holidays. For me these lights, screwed into bases in a foot-high tabletop plastic tree or set in a candelabrum (I think we had both) were more evocative of Christmas than the “real tree” itself. And only my brother would appreciate this, I thought. (Naively, of course, since millions of other Americans grew up with these lights until the manufacturers eventually fell prey to changing tastes and went out of business in the 70’s).

I wasn’t sure if the old email address I have for him was still valid, so I googled him. Luckily our family name, which a great-uncle had de-Italianized by chopping off the ending but leaving a stump that was anything but American,  is something like 265,543 in popularity, so I didn’t have to sift through hundreds of results. There were just a handful of documents: published decisions of the planning commission of the county he was living in, a number of entries in a forum on farm tractors, a small business listing—enough to piece together that he was living in the country with his wife and son and had a design business. Apparently the email was still good.

Now the question is, how do I start…?

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