A Box Labeled “Tinsel and Lights”
In June of 2015, my parents cleaned out the crawl space underneath my childhood home and sent me away with a box of my old memorabilia. Around that same time, I’d quit my job as a speech therapist to stay home with my two young sons. I was still adjusting to my new routine, and nap time was just about the only window I had to myself between breakfast and bedtime. On the back deck, I crouched over my forgotten box of mementos in the afternoon sun, sifting through pictures, poems, drawings, journals, essays, and stories. There was an alarming amount of what, at first, looked like trash, but turned out to be scraps—of paper, napkins, coasters—that I’d used to record rough combinations of words. What looked, decades later, like a symptom of latent hoarding tendencies was actually an indication that whatever I’d written was once meaningful to me. Because at one point, writing was most meaningful to me. This forgotten box, though more an example of quantity than quality, allowed me to admit that writing was still meaningful to me—that I missed it and wanted it back.
As I combed through the box of my old writing, I thought of a Whiskeytown song called “Houses on a Hill,” which depicts a man stumbling across a stash of old letters “in the northwest corner of the attic in a box / labeled ‘Tinsel And Lights.'” The letters were written to a former lover by a woman we presume is the narrator’s mother-in-law. Her lover had gone off to war with her picture “in the pocket that was closest to his heart.” He never returned, the photo having become “a target for the gunman . . . when he hit shore.” The song’s residual effect is the sad understanding that the woman’s heartbreaking legacy of love and loss was ultimately reduced to a pile of paper, gathering dust for so long that it ceased to be a part of her story as the world knew it.
With ”Houses on a Hill” playing in my head like the soundtrack to the ceremonial sorting of my own forgotten writing, I thought of my grandmother. Much as the song describes, her copious letters were written half a century ago. Unlike the unburied treasure before me, however, her letters were mailed off into oblivion; whatever she’d found meaningful enough to write down was gone.
My dad has many memories of his mother writing letters. She was originally from France, but would live out her days in North Carolina, having married an American soldier she met during World War II. She went home from time to time—once to give birth to my father, her firstborn, and several times to visit—until she was too old to make the trip. Otherwise, most of her correspondence with her former life—her mother, her siblings, her friends, and the branches of her French family tree that continued to extend in her absence—was through the letters she wrote and received. She was gifted in art and language and had come of age while France was under German occupation. Her English and German skills got her a job as a translator in Paris, working in the same office as my grandfather, who’d been injured in Italy and reassigned to her location because he could speak French. Family lore suggests they were involved in “gathering intelligence” related to the war effort, but details are sketchy and difficult to confirm. After the war, she followed him to the other side of the ocean and married him in a long white gown made of repurposed parachute material. She raised five children and pursued a later-life career as a high school French teacher.
By the time she passed away in her early 80s, most of those memories had been obscured or erased by Alzheimer’s disease. ”She was speaking nonsense,” my great-uncle later told me of the last time he’d visited her in the States; he openly lamented that his sister, who had once excelled in multiple languages, had ultimately lost her grip on all of them. She had led a fascinating and complicated life, but I’d been too young and self-involved to ask her about it when she was mentally and physically available to me. While I have my own memories of her hunched over her desk in the act of writing letters, I have no way to verify what she wrote about. Maybe her letters were no more than handwritten small talk, amounting to the cliché ”family newsletter,” focusing on the positive and conveniently omitting any awkward details: how little so-and-so eats his weight in glue, how bigger so-and-so got sent home from school for showing her panties at recess. Regardless, the fact that she spent so much time writing these letters seems to imply that writing them mattered to her, in the way writing matters to me, especially now that I am a mother myself.
I am neither well-read nor widely read, but I have always written. I wrote because I wanted to. Because I loved it. I shrank from competition and had no desire to taint something I enjoyed with the idea that my work wasn’t good enough. Nevertheless, I still craved an audience. So I sought out the least critical fan base I could assemble. There was my first grade teacher, who copied my poem about rainbows in giant handwritten letters onto a poster board for display on her classroom door. And my sister, who proudly delivered to her fourth grade teacher each installment in my series about a precociously obnoxious child who had National Lampoon-style adventures like ”The Little Genius Goes To Europe.” And the same fourth grade teacher, later mine, who left me supportive comments in the margins of the composition book where I penciled in my responses to daily writing prompts like, “What would you do if you woke up to find a Leprechaun in your room?” And my ninth grade English teacher, who publicly applauded my excessive use of descriptive adjectives by presenting my essay to the class as an example. That essay was subsequently torn apart by my classmates, who collectively accused the anonymous writer of sounding like an eighteenth-century grandma. Nevertheless, a little recognition along the way was enough to keep me going, even if it wasn’t entirely necessary. Writing was something I would have done anyway for my own private satisfaction.
Reading, meanwhile, was just okay by me. It’s not that I didn’t like stories. Reading just seemed like an excruciatingly uninteresting hobby—and my persona was teetering on the edge of nerd-dom as it was. People who didn’t know me already described me as ”quiet.” Adding ”bookish” to my profile threatened to trigger an advance on my invitation to the Future Cat Ladies Of America Club. But I was also a people-pleaser. A rule-follower. An overanxious doer of homework. So I diligently read everything ever assigned to me.
In spite of myself, I liked it. Just about all of it. From middle school all the way through college. Often I liked it for the stories, but more often for how people wrote them and for the chance to write my own essays in response. Huckleberry Finn made dialogue come alive with characters that spoke like real people I’d encountered growing up in the South. As I Lay Dying manipulated time and narration in a way that apparently existed in storytelling long before Pulp Fiction blew my mind with its flashbacks and flash-forwards. The Catcher in the Rye reminded my 14-year-old self that I didn’t invent sarcasm, despite what every kid that age likes to think. The Great Gatsby drew me into its world of lavish parties and complicated people hiding in plain sight. On the Road echoed the chaotic wandering of my college years, when at the very least my consciousness was all over the place. And the little gems I picked up in French class left a lasting impression on me: ”The Necklace“ with its cautionary tale and ending twist and Moliere’s plays with their clever take on silliness. Reading shaped my thinking and my writing, but it was never the natural hobby for me that writing always was.
The older I got, however, the harder it was to avoid competition and to insulate myself from the possibility that my writing wasn’t good enough. Part of me always wanted to challenge myself as a writer, while another part actively fled from the pressure of proving myself or comparing my work to other people’s. In college, I experimented with a journalism minor and an English major, but ultimately abandoned both. I’d read every classic required by academia, but could only quote poems I’d memorized as a French assignment. I had not read for pleasure—probably not ever in my life. I still wrote papers for school and funny poems for my friends and family, but I was increasingly private about my writing and gradually allowed the task of growing up to overshadow it. It became a mere personal interest, not immediately relevant to my adult life.
Even so, there were moments that cast a warm light on the dark corner where I’d hidden my love for writing. Like the day I stumbled upon a copy of Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris while killing time in a Barnes & Noble between shifts at a nearby restaurant. I had taken a year off between college and grad school to wait tables for no particularly good reason, and my brain was not thriving on its current diet of Pint Night black-and-tans and withered nachos. Unlikely to read anything unassigned, I had no idea where to start in a bookstore; I picked up the first title that caught my eye. Before I could finish the giant coffee drink I’d purchased from the obligatory in-store Starbucks, I’d read the first essay, ”Go Carolina,” about Sedaris’s childhood experience with speech therapy—the field I was about to enter. I laughed out loud when he described his speech therapist with disdain as “a person for whom the word pen had two syllables” due to her heavy Western North Carolina accent. When he went on to insist that “her people undoubtedly drank from clay jugs and hollered for paw when the vittles were ready,” I practically snorted iced latte onto the text. As I finished my newly purchased copy at home, I related with hilarity and humility to his essays about growing up in North Carolina (as I had), and living in France (where I’d completed a semester abroad less than eight months before). While discovering that book did nothing to dissuade me from speech pathology, it changed my perception of what writing could be. There’s such a thing as creative nonfiction? It blew me away. Maybe I couldn’t write it as well as he could, but I knew I could write about those kinds of things. Because I already had.
Almost 15 years after discovering Sedaris’s work and just a few months before uncovering my box of old writing, my husband took me to see Sedaris read at a nearby performing arts center. My husband knew I was a fan and had always been hugely supportive of my own writing, which had amounted to little more than birthday card inscriptions and wedding toasts in the years that he’d known me. Since the birth of our children, I’d shared more and more with him—little pieces about our kids—and I always derived tremendous satisfaction from his genuine laughter and sentimental tears. Sedaris’s writing had managed to inspire me at a time in my life when being productive was more important to me than being creative, and seeing him read his work aloud in person was like finding that box of old writing in its metaphorical form. I laughed, I cried, and I felt inspired all over again.
Moving away from writing had been part of growing up for me. I had established a fulfilling yet practical career and worked as hard and as fast and as much as I could until I looked up and hardly recognized myself. As a childless adult, my hobbies had consisted of drinking wine and watching embarrassing amounts of TV. Writing for pleasure was packed away and only dusted off for special occasions. But like so many grown-ups will tell you, having kids alters your priorities; I was no exception. As I slowed down and watched my boys grow from babies into cognizant little people, I admired the pure joy with which they pursued their developing interests and began to long for what I’d packed away in pursuit of becoming ”grown up.”
In becoming reacquainted with my box of old writing, I thought of my grandmother’s lost letters and the memories that decayed along with her consciousness. I thought of the woman from “Houses on a Hill,” whose first love and former life were left to gather dust in a mislabeled box. Then I thought of myself. I thought of the scraps of essays I had written in the Notes app on my phone, while I nursed my kids or during quiet moments alone in the car before walking into work. Writing had been my first love and my writing had always been, first and foremost, for me. But now my writing was for my kids—for them, about them, about us as a family. There was no box for them to find some day, and yet I wanted there to be a box. I needed a box, a trove, a secret stash; somewhere they could go to read about my love for them—my frustration, my despair, my ennui, my overwhelming pride—when I was no longer able to convey it myself.
So I started a blog and named it Tinsel and Lights, my own cyber version of a box whose label has nothing to do with its contents. I filled it with stories about my kids and myself as a kid. I painted verbal portraits of the standard cast of characters in our lives: the grandparents, the aunts, the uncles, the siblings, and the parents. I vented about the mundane and mind-numbing aspects of parenting and celebrated the ebullient pride and effervescent joy that bubbles to the surface in response to my kids. I looked forward to sharing each post like a favorite dish I’d perfected from an old family recipe, one I couldn’t wait for other people to taste. My writing’s not for everyone, but blogging and social media gradually expanded my audience of extended family and friends. One post was viewed more than 1,000 times, after newfound confidence and persistence catapulted it from my own site to a much larger online venue.
Two years since starting the blog, the kids have changed so much that both the frequency and content of my blog posts have changed along with them. I used to claim nap time as writing time, producing posts at least weekly. But now, they’ve aged out of naps, and I’ve slowly started back to part-time work as a speech therapist. I’m lucky to post once a month, squeezing in a line or two after therapy notes while they watch TV or play outside. Now that my kids have begun to navigate the world as tiny sentient individuals, I’ve had to think more critically about sharing private details of their development in the public sphere, because what constitutes a funny story to mommy might one day be devastatingly embarrassing to them. So, my commentary on their childhood now takes shape in more generalized humorous pieces—top 10 lists and mock conversations that help me preserve snapshots of their behavior without getting too specific in incriminating ways.
In the meantime, I’ve realized that another way to preserve my memories and their memory of me is to continue being memorable. That means being present and active in their lives, but also in mine—letting them see me passionately engaged in interests that exist independently of them. So much of a mom’s identity gets lost in the kids; the blog has inspired me to write for the sake of continuing to write, to reflect on things my kids don’t know I think about, using language more coarse or colorful than I use with them. I’ve started pursuing other opportunities to write beyond the blog by participating in writing contests and responding to calls for submissions, exposing myself to the type of criticism and response I once feared, but which now keeps me engaged and excited about what’s possible. In doing so, I’m reminding myself as much as them that no mom is just a mom, no matter how sacred and honorable the position, and that every person is bigger than the box she might find herself in.
My writing is still primarily for me and those close to me, but sharing my work with a larger, more critical audience has been an exhilarating exercise in catharsis and connection. It has allowed me to place my fears of inadequacy and failure among those things more suited to a forgotten box in the attic than a love that other people can share. In rediscovering myself as a writer, I’ve finally begun to unpack my lost love and embraced an opportunity to tell the stories I want others to remember. My kids are too young to appreciate it now, but I’m hoping this labor of love—for family and for the act of writing itself—will make my voice indefinitely available to them, unwrapped through the written word like a gift ready to be shared, whenever they need to hear it.