The three sins; that is what my father called them: Hegemony, Hedonism and Hubris. My mother used to laugh and say that it could not be a sin if you could not pronounce it, at which point my uncle Franz would slap his hand on his leg and shout a stream of words in French or German, winking all the time, so that my brother and I would know that he knew of plenty of sins we could not pronounce.
My father kept three tankards up on a ledge, one for each of the sins, and every time my brother or I committed an offence he would drop a coloured stone into the tankard: blue for me, green for William. When we were younger the tankards were almost empty but when we entered our teens the tankard for Hedonism started to fill up with green stones at an alarming rate.
William was not a bad person, just a self-centered one. He took up with a crowd in college who spent all their Saturdays driving around and drinking – at least, I hope it was in that order. After a few weekends where he puked on the carpet my mother banned him from going out, and he turned his interest to music instead. Not classical, and not the modern music that you can dance to, but loud, banging noises that made your head pound.
It was at this time that he stopped going to classes too, telling us that he knew all the stuff anyway, and it was boring. My father added some green stones to the tankard marked Hubris during this phase, and still I did not think anything of it.
I was busy myself. I wanted to go away to college and knew that the only way to afford to live away from home was to earn enough money to see me through two years of rent and classes. I took jobs everywhere I could, delivering papers, working night shifts at the local store, doing yard work. My uncle Franz used to mutter that I was working too hard when he came over for a visit but I took no notice.
One day he dropped a black stone into the Hegemony tankard and pointed at my father. My father looked up, saw what Uncle Franz had done and shouted that he had no right to interfere with another person’s property and his ornaments. Franz sat through it all with a big grin on his face, then answered in German, which of course we could not understand, and which made my father really mad. Dad shouted in English, and Uncle Franz replied in German, with each of them getting louder and more animated. Then, just when my father had slammed his fist onto the table, Uncle Franz got up, dropped a black stone in the Hubris tankard, took his coat from the peg by the door, bowed elegantly to my mother and left.
We never saw Uncle Franz in our house again. I know my mother used to visit him, and she would sometimes bring us packages from him, but they were never very interesting, once opened, and I sometimes wondered if Uncle Franz had forgotten we were grown up, and not the six and eight-year olds he used to buy candy for. To my relief, the tankards were never touched again, after that day, because somehow, William came to his senses and finished college and got a job in an insurance broker’s office, although I know he continued drinking.
I finally finished my degree, met somebody and we lived together for three years, saving money for a house. My father was not happy with the arrangement, but then, he did not offer to pay the rent, either. I know my mother disapproved, but she said to me one day that Uncle Franz had told her not to worry, that we would turn out all right in the end.
And so we did. Jim and I got married, holding the big, family wedding which the family loved, and we hated. Dad gave a big speech, full of long words, and knowing looks at various family members. I do not remember too much of it because the champagne made me a bit dizzy and my dress was too tight, but I know he mentioned Hegemony, Hedonism and Hubris because he had the three tankards in front of him while he made the speech, and they were all full of blue stones.
Afterwards, when we opened our gifts, we found the usual collection of toasters and candlesticks and one large heavy box, labelled ‘the sins of marriage’. Jim and I looked at each other in surprise, then tore off the wrapping. Inside were three tankards, each with a blank plaque, not yet engraved, and two bags, one with red stones, the other with yellow. At the bottom of the box was a note.
“Choose your own. Uncle Franz.”