There is a red car in my driveway.

It has been there, off and on, since the late afternoon of the day before Christmas. That day, in a monumental triumph of bad timing on the part of my parents, also happens to be my birthday, and the arrival of the red car did not make me feel younger.

Christmas holidays, especially those that involve big family reunions and family passages, earn their place in the memories of all the family members and they get shorthanded in subsequent years with phrases such as: "That was the year Grandpa got drunk and pinched your mother." The resident grandpa in our family hasn't done anything quite so daring in years; however, so we are reduced to remembering Christmases in more mundane ways such as where we hid various bikes, or knocked over Christmas trees, or got stranded in subzero weather on the way home from Grandma's. This year, however, may well be remembered as the year the red car appeared.

The appearance of the red car coincided with the return of the 21-year-old. He has been working and going to college in Manhattan and has taken, of late, to calling home to have brotherly conversations with the resident 12-year-old. I do not mean to suggest that he doesn't also call and have conversations with me or his little sister, but it did come as a shock when he started calling his brother to converse exclusively with him. It's the kind of thing that makes you feel ever so slightly irrelevant. Especially when the 12-year-old appears in the kitchen after one such marathon episode and says that his big brother said to say hi. Twenty-one years of sacrifice, not to mention $1.5 billion in outlays, and all you get is a hi?

A couple of weeks before Christmas, I came home from work to discover that one of these phone calls had been under way for some time. I was told that the topic du jour was Christmas presents. In the spirit of the occasion, I got on the kitchen extension and told Joe Manhattan what I planned to get for him and gave him a brief list of things that he could get for me, if he was so inspired (I have learned over the years that people who are shrinking violets about their gift list get forgotten). My main recollection of the conversation is that the first five minutes were on my son's dime and then he had his little brother call him back so that the rest of the summit was on mine. He said he was coming down on the 24th, and I told him not to come too late in the day so I could pick him up at the subway station, and he would not turn my birthday dinner into a fire drill.

By late Thursday, I had heard nothing from him about his travel plans. I decided I wasn't going to worry about it. This is, after all, a grown man in the eyes of just about everyone in the world whom he doesn't call Mother. Shortly after 5 p.m., however, the grown man hadn't called to let us know whether he was even on the way, and I was busily concluding that underneath the surface of the grown man is yet another irresponsible college student.

Suddenly, the door from the carport opened. My daughter screamed. We all looked around, and he made his entrance into the family room, looking very much the grown man, and very pleased with himself. We had a loud and happy reunion, and after things settled down, I asked the burning question, which was not "How are you?"

It was: "How did you get here?"

He said: "I drove."

I said: "You drove? What did you drive?"

He said: "My car."

I said: "Your car? What are you talking about? Your car!" I used to live in New York, too.

He said: "I bought a car."

I said: "Without me? You bought a car without telling me? Without asking my advice?"

His little brother was gloating. "You knew!" I said. It turned out that the proud owner of the newly acquired car had bought it two weeks earlier and had told his little brother the night of the marathon phone call and sworn him to secrecy. When the little brother helps his big brother keep a secret instead of spilling the beans, you know the balance of power within a family is subtly shifting.

We all went out to the driveway. There sat the biggest, reddest 1972 Pontiac Le Mans I have ever seen. We went, of course, for a ride, during the course of which he told the story of how he got the car, and more relevantly, how much he paid for it and how much he subsequently had to put into it. I had to admit that he seems to have made a pretty good deal. Even without my advice.

Then we got home. Suddenly it hit me: "What about insurance?"

"It's all taken care of," he said.

After all, he's a grown man. Even in the eyes of his mother.