childhood

Christmas pangs.

The man who runs the mail room in the office must love our publishing group.
His name is Bill.
He also drives the shuttle that picks me up from the train station every morning; he wears a jaunty cabbie's cap and revs the engine menacingly as he waits for the stragglers to pile in. He can be gruff, but on other days, he'll offer to make a pit stop at Starbucks before returning to the office.
We all love Bill. He makes the smallest small talk about the weather and says, "Here's your lunch" every time I get a personal delivery. (Which is often. Online retailers love me.)
And Bill must love our group, because we get a lot of deliveries.

Because we work with so many plant companies, we receive huge shipments of flowers every spring and poinsettias during the holiday season. Today was poinsettia day; two boxes half as tall as me, emblazoned with urgent instructions — UNPACK IMMEDIATELY. UNSLEEVE PROMPTLY. WATER. — arrived from California with the UPS man, exploding with a fresh scent somewhere between spring and winter, fresh soil and the arctic chill of a long journey.
We pulled each plant from the box, crumbles of cold dirt falling as we unraveled the brown paper sleeves and trimmed away the plastic coverings. We divvied them up in my boss' office and delivered them to the receptionist's desk and other members of our group. Everyone loves plants in the office. Almost as much as we all love Bill.

Then I came back to sit down and, you know, actually work.
But there was another box in my way, unmarked but for its address label, delivered from Kansas City: Christmas presents from my mother.
I shimmied around the box to my chair and grabbed a pair of scissors to spring the box flaps open. I couldn't help myself. I needed a little pick-me-up; on the bus this morning, I finally burned out on holly-jolly carols and had to turn on Led Zeppelin to get the j-i-n-g-l-e bells out of my ear. But I knew just a look at the gifts would help me revert back to my 5-year-old self.
Still wrapped. No peeking. Promise.

The box was brimming with snow-white packing peanuts, but an ornate chiffon bow peeked out from the pile, and I dug excitedly through the stuffing to pull out the contents. Bright paper packages tied up with string, a little smashed from shipping but beautiful nonetheless. This year's wrapping paper is a shiny off white covered with partridges in potted pear trees. No box looked alike; one had a bright red stick-on bow and another was knotted with a bright blue luggage tag, a small clue to its contents.
But my giddiness suddenly began to fade.
Because I was unpacking a cardboard box full of presents that, any other year, would live, toasty warm and unscathed, under the seven-foot, artificial pre-lit tree in the corner of my family's living room, between the piano and the china cabinet that holds the silver platters that get trotted out when company comes.

My heart leaped into my throat as I dug blindly through to the bottom of the box. I felt the familiar curve of my stocking, overflowing with trial-size toiletries and stuffed with little trinkets my mother likely collected throughout the entire year. My sister and I would always save them for last and open them by the fire before rushing upstairs to get ready for brunch. My name is at the top of mine in big blue letters, with a little teddy bear in front of a fire, all hand cross stitched by my grandmother.
I can pile presents wrapped in brand-new paper under my tabletop tree. Unfazed.
I can make the same casserole my mother makes every Christmas morning to enjoy in my own apartment this year. And that will be fine.
But seeing that stocking anywhere but hanging from the gold knob that anchors the screen by the marble fireplace? That stocking came to me in a cold cardboard box, already filled with things I'm not supposed to see until Christmas morning. And no one will get to see me see them when it's time. There will be a phone call, a thank-you note, a belated hug.
It broke my heart.

God.

I chose not to go back to Kansas for Christmas this year for a lot of reasons. Some of them were emotional, but most of them were practical. Logistical. I'll see my mother, stepfather and sister on January 2, when we fly together from Chicago then set sail from San Juan, Puerto Rico, for nine days of family fun in the sun. On a boat.
I knew it would be different being away from my family for Christmas — though the Knight will be a perfectly lovely holiday companion — but as the day creeps closer? I'm realizing how just how difficult it could be, too.
That's growing up for you, I guess, but the last vestiges of little girl in me aren't ready to abandon childhood totally. This bright-eyed child, wearing a velvet dress with shiny patent-leather shoes to match, misses her mother: the best stocking stuffer, casserole maker and hug giver she'll ever know.

I'll be home for Christmas…if only in my dreams.

Dachshund dreams.

I fell asleep last night in my own Chicago bed — bundled under layers of blankets, space heater roaring to compensate for the building's aging radiators — and barely stirred when the Knight got in, just as November flipped to December.
I woke up long enough to shut off the space heater, which had brought my room to about 472 degrees, scoot to the other side of the bed, reposition Gunther between my shoulder and cheek, and fan my sweat-dampened hair across the cool pillowcase.
By the time he'd come to bed, I was long gone, queen again of the Land of Nod.

Around 5 a.m., I woke up and wanted to talk about a dream I'd had.
"Baby?"
"Nnnnnghhhghg."
"I dreamed last night that one of my friends had two little Dachshund puppies, and I got to take them for a walk on these little pink leashes."

I remembered the dream so well, the tug of the little leashes in my clenched fist, their soft brown hair smooth against my palm as I crouched on the ground next to them and stroked their long backs.
It was a dream a little girl might have, and I awoke feeling like a little girl.
Not like the other dreams I've had lately — where I woke up scared and in need of coddling — just a wide-eyed child, full of hope and wondering whether one day, that simple dream could just magically come true.

He laughed softly and put his arms around me; I nestled against his bare chest, smiling beatifically, and closed my eyes again until the alarm went off. Time to be a grown-up again.

My blue period.

Before every new school year, no matter how much remained of my stockpile from the previous year, my mother and I would make a pilgrimage to the office store to buy a fresh batch of school supplies. Every class in every grade had its own list, but the items on those lists were open to a certain degree of interpretation.
For a few years, it was Lisa Frank pocket folders. Later, I lusted for a Trapper Keeper — but my school had banned them for their noisy Velcro closures. We bought spiral-bound notebooks in different colors for each subject, college-rule loose-leaf paper and binders with clear plastic sleeves so I could design my own covers.
My taste in writing utensils grew with me, starting with Ticonderoga No. 2 pencils that smudged instantly as my left hand dragged across the page. In high school, my cramped cursive demanded the finest point, in Pilot’s deepest blue ink. I upgraded to mechanical pencils, with lead so skinny they snapped under any pressure, when I became one of the hot-shot eighth graders who took geometry at the high school.
Unrelated: We took our own bus back to the middle school after the high school’s first hour was over; my best friend and I sat in the back and drew signs that said, “HONK IF YOU LIKE CHOCOLATE” then lamented that all the commuters had lost their taste for cacao.)

And then there were the crayons.
In that yellow box covered with black squiggles and that round, squatty Crayola font.
Once upon a time, cardboard-backed, disposable children’s storybooks outnumbered trashy tabloids in grocery store checkout aisles — and there were coloring books, too. With monochromatic shells of characters that sprang to life as I turned their shirts red and hair…purple. Actually, that’s a lie. As free spirited as I’d like to think myself, I was always a rational, realistic little girl. And I hadn’t learned about punk yet.
I learned a coloring strategy from my father — not something he actively taught me but that I saw him do, like most of the lessons I’ve taken from him: Trace the crayons, pressing hard, along the page’s black outlines, then fill in the lines with a lighter shading in the same color. I felt like a real artist when I stood back from the refrigerator to admire my finished work: how grown-up, how beautiful it looked. And clearly, the artistic bug that bit me as a child has crawled out of my system altogether now.
Class supply lists never called for more than the basic box (few projects, let alone the simple minds of most children, would ever call for the nuanced shades that more than 24 could provide). But it was the box of 64 crayons — with the sharpener on the back and a top that flipped open like a display case — that grabbed me. Hell, it grabbed every kid; it was the Cadillac of crayon packages. You never knew you needed four different kinds of pinkish-red until you saw them lined up there, each blushing in its own way. Over time, the distinction between Raw Sienna and Burnt Sienna became abundantly, laughably clear. In a corner of the box, there were metallics, always reserved for special occasions: holiday cards, the glint of a princess’ precious jewelry. And white? Never necessary unless you were working in a truly advanced medium. Like black construction paper. Still, it was there.
As the years passed and I moved farther from the creative pursuits of elementary school, I came to love English and chemistry instead, and my supply lists ceased to include crayons. But I’ve always loved them: the tiny colored dots along the cardboard box top of a new package; the perfectly aligned, flattened points of the rainbow of colors. The matte paper wrapping that matched the shiny wax perfectly. Wondering why I had to push harder to get the same intensity from Cornflower as I did from, say, Periwinkle. I wonder now why I would even want to demand that same intensity of poor, watery Cornflower.
More than all these things, I remember when Crayola introduced Cerulean in 1990. (I was 7.)
I woke up yesterday thinking about it.
Specifically? The first time I picked up Cerulean, wondering how even to say the color, it looked like just another ordinary blue. But one brisk stroke to the page proved this wrong. A hint of green, a beautiful translucence. A wild bird. The deepest part of the ocean off a perfect Caribbean island, when the light hits it just right. Just…gorgeous. And so surprising.

That one color out of 64 could stick with me like that, 16 years later, seems silly. But I give it credence, the fact that I woke up thinking about it, because nothing in my life seems to lack meaning lately. The idea of something — or someone — seeming so like the rest then surprising me with its beauty is comforting and thrilling at the same time. It can even hurt a little, though it must be clear I'm really not talking about crayons anymore.
So much to learn that years in school couldn't teach me — but maybe that big box of color can lend me a little more insight.