December 1, 2017
I am alone this December, cloistered in a stranger’s Airbnb apartment to finish my memoir. A package arrives addressed to me, wrapped in worn brown paper, postmarked Nov 28, 1978. The return address is the first I ever learned. The handwriting is my mother’s — eerie, as she died four years ago this month. I place it on my borrowed desk and as I watch, the package unwraps itself. A farrago of parts and pieces fall out; they untangle and assemble. The jumble arranges into a model of my childhood home. Numbers appear on doors, furniture, secret hiding places. It is an Advent Calendar. It completes itself in a crackle of red and white sparks.
I peer through a tiny window into a miniature replica of my bedroom. The number One is my old dresser. I focus on it and POOF! A ribboned box appears, here, in this apartment. Inside is a snow globe. It is full of my tears. I shake it. My naïve, youthful aspirations glitter and swirl around changing images of things won and things lost.
Today I tilt and turn my home looking for number Two. I find it on the backside of my parent’s bathroom door. Blink and another box materializes. Wound inside is my mother’s bathrobe sash: tattered and makeup stained. I knot it around my waist. Honeysuckle. Liverwurst, Bach, Sunday school; a perfectionist, worn out.
An Illuminated Three, gilded vermillion, glows in the living room bookshelf. Before I reach I wonder which book it will be? The first to make me cry? The one I read again and again? Hemingway? Steinbeck? Shakespeare? A wicked little smile and one eyebrow up; the one worth the most on eBay? With a foul sulphur belch the Illuminated Three disappears.
No Four. Did I break the spell? I move my hands over my home. I sense warm, cold, very cold, warmer. The sensation leads me to the front porch. Hot! Hot! Something shiny caught between the boards. I nudge and cajole it to the edge. My father’s lucky Indian Head coin. I’m the one who lost it, but accused my best friend of stealing it. My brother said that’s why she moved away.
Dark, lumpy, and a bit moldy. Number Five is on the kitchen counter. Fruitcake. Penance? I chew and swallow, a hint of bourbon.
Six is Dad’s workbench. With a static sputter his old AM radio plays carols: little drummer boys wait for Santa’s reindeer.
Sevens are everywhere. I try a two-handed swirl. Holiday lotto tickets flutter onto this desk. I can hear Grandma saying “Gambling’s the devil’s work.” I scratch, but do not win.
Eight is Mom’s KitchenAid. I wish for… a batter’ed 3×5 card.
Mix butter, sugar, molasses, and dark rum.
Add ginger, cloves, nutmeg, allspice. . .
A timer rings in the apartment. I smell spices. I open the oven, inside, a dozen ginger men.
December 9th – 12th
This morning’s weather is frightful. I’m delighted to find my childhood home all decorated. White lights, scissored snowflakes, a tree with silver and red balls, handmade ornaments, and tiny birds. For the next four days, while the winter storm rages, I tap a decoration and my rented halls are decked. I save the tree for last. I wish for someone to share it with.
The old rotary phone in our hallway rings. Now it’s here, on the desk. So awkward, I slip my finger into the holes and dial our old number, long disconnected. My brother answers! We haven’t spoken in years. We talk for hours, but make no promises.
I work all day on my memoir, skipping breakfast and lunch. The light fades and I’m starving. The fridge won’t open. I eye the Calendar. Yes, #14 is our old fridge, the mustard colored wheezer we scrimped for two years to replace. The apartment’s refrigerator splutters. A picked over spiral ham sits alone, half covered in foil. I fork off a gelatinous slice and return to writing.
Fifteen is my bedroom. A tiny box appears. Tucked in black starry velvet is a waning crescent. I recall sleepless nights: stories finished undercover, Grandpa in a rented hospital bed, a teenage slumber party, my deflowering, and journaling — always journaling.
The coatrack. I open the box. My father’s scarf, a dark tartan. It still smells of pipe tobacco, Old Spice, and snooker.
My closet. The apartment lights dim, all my devices synchro-play Handel’s Messiah. The stolen burgundy choir robe — hidden all these years — drops in a heavy pile at my feet, followed by a well worn hymnal. God and sinners reconciled.
Number 18 the loveseat. A caress. A sprig of mistletoe — crushed. Under it is a folded, crumpled note. I look at my left hand, at my never ringed finger. What if? The tears fall.
I consider smashing the Calendar. I don’t look for #19.
Two X’s notch my secret hiding place under the stairs. I trace the X’s, a box appears. Inside is a pellucid beryl palantír, a seeing stone. I gaze into it and recognize scenes from my past: old playmates and teachers, aunts and uncles, grandparents, Mother waving, Dad a step behind. All dead. It connects me to we.
My mother’s favorite day, the year’s longest night. Outside, thorny twigs scrape the porch. The apartment’s desk is covered in Peace rose petals.
Our hall closet. Wrapping paper, curling ribbon, presents given and received. I drop $20 into the bell ringer’s red bucket at the grocery store.
The mantelpiece. A row of candles. Now they light this desk. I work late, until they gutter.
Our stairwell. A family photo dated December 1978. My memoir is finished: “To my mother and father.”
The Calendar is gone.