Tuesday, December 2, 2008
I will start by saying that there is no tragedy here. I didn’t fall out of the attic hatch, I didn’t get freeze or starve up there. The “adventure” was over before it started. Still—the memory stays with me for a reason.
I was always a good climber. Family legend says that when I was 11 months old, I was found on top of a Danish credenza/bookshelf at the dizzying height of 6 ft. According to the story, my mom plucked me off the highest shelf just as the whole thing was beginning to sway.
As a toddler, I was into countless things tucked safely into the tallest kitchen cabinets, and as a kid I routinely climbed trees all over our neighborhood. Even now, as we were building our current house, I climbed the chimney several times to sit in the top rafters of the attic and look down at the site. This is all a long way of saying I’m not afraid of heights.
But that December day, as I peered over the attic frame, I did feel a bit dizzy. I was giddy with defiance, then unexpectedly struck with a sudden lack of confidence. I had no idea what I was doing, and the clock was ticking—my parents would be home soon. The plans I had thought of so carefully before went from building a tower to the end result of dazzling decorations perfectly placed all over the house. As for the middle—nothing. I was in the middle of the plan, now, and as I realized its failure, I felt the kind of eight-year-old shame that makes you hang your head with tears. That’s what I did, up there in the attic.
Through my tears, I came up with the unsatisfying idea of tossing the boxes down. This plan I modified when I saw I could use the twine on a few of the boxes to sort of dangle it down through the hatch. It didn’t reach the floor below exactly, but it was better than an 8-foot drop. This I did, with the two boxes that had twine. With the other three, I took my chances and just let them drop. One of them made a crunchy rattle on impact, and my confidence dropped further.
Finally, I took a deep breath and thought about getting down myself. In dangling the boxes, I had hit the tower of books and stools, and it tilted even more precariously. The stool had slid completely off the stack, and to even reach the phonebooks, I was going to have to hang by my fingers.
Climbing down the tower was less a climb than it was a decelerated slide down books and leather. Once I had the momentum started of launching myself down and backwards through the hatch, my toes hit the books, which slid, and I was pulled down with the remains of the tower. I ended up on the floor between a twine-tied box and the Danish stool, my legs splayed out on the phonebooks.
I wanted to rest and let my hands stop shaking, but I had wasted too much time already. I did my best to weed through the tissues and twine and shattered glass ornaments (yes, there were many). I found my most beloved ornaments—thickly-scented candles molded into Santas, snowmen, and angels. These I set ceremonially around the room. Using the broom handle as a lifting pole, I nudged the macramé Santa onto its hook in the living room, the macramé snowman onto the front door. The red felt stockings I hung on the mantel, making sure our gold rick-racked names were all facing the right direction.
To my dismay, I realized I hadn’t gotten the aluminum tree down. The now-dissolved tower of books just made me mad, now, and I was too tired to try to go back up. I made do by pulling out my favorite tree ornaments, plastic bears and reindeer, Santas and snowmen, each flocked in fake snow, or fur, or both. I propped these beauties up among the candles on the stereo, making sure the Santas, snowmen, and reindeer were properly mingled with each other in the right combinations.
As I recall, I was in the middle of this very particular arranging when my parents came home. Of course, it had been my intention to have it finished by the time they came home, but I thought it was close enough to done that I shouted, “Surprise!”
Surprise doesn’t begin to describe what they must have felt. Here are my parents, the very definition of harried. Here is me, a bouncy eight-year old in the thick of “decorating” and “helping.”
At that moment in time, our worlds and values were galaxies apart.
I will preface this by saying that my parents are good people, kind people, and they loved me. Poor and just starting a business, they were also were struggling to keep our family in clothes and food. That year in particular they were so burdened with work that they must have dreamed of simply skipping Christmas altogether, with all the work involved with cleaning and taking out and putting away, preparing and planning. I’m sure they saw the Christmas season as one more thing to do on a long, joyless list of chores.
I, on the other hand, was a dreamy little girl, single-minded, and lonely. I wished I could always have the magic of the Christmas season, with all its shininess and possibility. How could Christmas be a burden?
You know what happens in this part of the story, the part where my parents enter the room. As in some fairy tale, the “beauty” of the scene was visible only to my eight-year-old eyes. Far from noticing the magical ornaments and the Christmas possibility they brought, my parents saw instead the flaws in my plan—the broken ornaments, the candles on the dusty mantel and tables, the pile of books and stools, boxes, twine and tissue. They were furious at me for climbing on furniture and irritated that the open attic hatch was leaking all the cold air out. They were angry about the extra mess I had caused and the work it would take to put it back. Mostly, they were baffled about why I would do such a senseless thing. “What was the big idea?” they asked.
I don’t remember what I told them. In fact, my memory of that afternoon is vivid, but only up until the time my mom and dad returned. I have little memory of what happened after that. I imagined I was punished. I imagine there was yelling. I imagine I probably helped put away some of the mess. But how I explained my big idea? I have no idea.
So let me tell you now what I might not have been able to say then.
The big idea was this: I loved Christmas with my family. That day was the most special day in the world to me. I loved spending the day with my mom and dad at home, playing with the toys I received, eating the food they cooked together. It was the single day of the year they did not work, and it was one of the only meals we ate together at home. The hush that fell over the house when there was only fun to do was magic.
Eight-year-old Kirie believed that that magic came from the trappings of Christmas. The ornaments, candles, shiny trees and carols—the power was there, and I longed to bring it out from the attic boxes and into my house. I wanted the calm, and the togetherness, and the possibility, and in my child’s mind, I associated those things with the flocked snowmen and macramé Santas.
To get this feeling then, to feel in control of my world and able to harness such special power—of course I would risk a climb to the attic. Looking back, I would have risked much worse, I believe.
Now I am a grownup, and with my own family, we celebrate Christmas all December. I notice each year that I am filled with an excitement similar to what I used to feel as a child. I notice also that am still trying to untangle some of the childlike associations I’ve made over the years. I still grapple with how I might best control my environment and bring calm and peace to my family. I am working on letting go of that need to control things outside of myself. Even as I realize this, I know that my letting go brings a peace in itself.
These are some of the things I think about as Christmas comes. Of course, there is the magic that the symbols bring—and I see it played out again on the faces of Ada and Esme when they play with the elves and toys in their Santa house. Their smiles light the room when they dance with the same flocked tree ornaments I used to play with. “Christmas is like magic,” Ada says.
I’m letting them feel the magic, and I’m also going to keep pointing out that it’s coming not from outside, but from us ourselves. The decorations are fun, the glittery things are pretty, but the real beauty is in the calm we feel together. Now when we put out the decorations, that is what I focus on.
Thanks for indulging one of my Christmas memories....Kirie
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