by Isabelle McCauley
Editor's note: 'Childhood Wasteland' was the second piece published in our Smoking Under the Mistletoe series in December 2016. The series also includes 'The Christmas of '96' by Lis Stanford, 'A Letter From Rudolf' by Rachel Sheldon, and 'Years Only Happen Here Now' by Jaxon Bradshaw.
There I was, squatting under the low part of the slanted ceiling in the attic, sobbing. The dust had made my eyes so itchy that this moment came at no surprise to me. I laughed a little. Cried some more. I wasn't even holding anything of mom’s, I was clinging onto a framed photo of me and Ezra, our old standard poodle. I realized that he's probably dead now, but none of us know because someone adopted him from us almost ten years ago—the summer after mom passed.
The attic was this surreal cave that symbolized everything I'd been feeling about home over the past two and a half years. It was a disastrous mess of pictures, keepsakes, and decorations; old homeschooling journals, manilla folders stuffed with my brother’s graded assignments, my princess cape mom made me, church programs, broken nerf guns, dusty luggage, all from our lives growing up. My childhood wasteland. I was sitting in it—sweating and sneezing and, finally, sobbing.
I was only squatting in the attic of the house I grew up in to find old family Christmas ornaments for my brother’s Christmas tree. (I stay with his family when I'm in Virginia now, that's “home.”) It's weird to me that the renters have an attic full of my family’s history—weirder that I had to knock on the door to get into it. I got up there and realized immediately that my dad was right when he warned me not to tackle this place alone. Mom’s stuff was everywhere. Not, like, delicately packaged for safekeeping. No, her things were thrown, spread, and stacked on the floor and mixed in with actual garbage. I forgot about finding ornaments and hopelessly tried to gather her pictures, costumes, VHS workout videos, scriptures she’d once hung on the kitchen wall, and anything with her handwriting on it. That lasted maybe three minutes before I wound up crouching, rummaging through a box of sticky photographs. It was a mess but I should've expected that. I wasn’t thinking, “damn this family for neglecting all of this!” Instead, I nodded my head in pitiful understanding as I wiped my tears. She was the only one who’d know what to do with all of this.
She'd know what to do with all the broken pieces of my childhood that lay lifeless on Lansing Ave. There are so many memories—I found them there in the attic—but they're abandoned and messy. Not gone, just untouched. Mom could help me. She would know how to sweep out the trash and find a place for the valuable stuff. But instead it’s all swimming together in a place we forgot about.
As I clung to that photo I cried tears for the dogs, Gus and Ezra. We gave them away during the transition from our big homeschooled family to our single-dad, public school lifestyle where Francis and I (the last kids living in the house) hopped on the bus and hoped for the best while my dad tried to juggle work, keeping the house in order, and survive double-duty parenting. During our last summer with the dogs, I remember sitting in my mom’s bed before they remodeled the master bedroom. I was wearing her bathrobe that I found hanging on the door. The dogs smelled it. They jumped on the bed and laid at my feet as if it were any other night snuggling with mom. They needed her so badly. We all did. Poor Ezra might be dead now, and none of us really know—his photo was tossed in the attic with the rest of it.
I wish I could say I got myself together and organized every last corner of that abandoned, sacred place. But I'm not my mother, and I had a train to catch in the morning. I managed to grab some Christmas ornaments and a couple of photos before climbing back down the cluttered stairs, leaving so many things behind that I could neither deal with or properly say goodbye to. Mom would whip that place into shape, she'd find a spot for the good stuff. But this Christmas, the attic collects dust.
Thumbnail image by Evelyn Stetzer.