Sunday, December 27, 2009
Ghost of Christmas Past
I've spent a bit of time today trying to find a digital picture of the house we used to live in. I have a framed one on display to remind all of us how things used to be, but the scanner's not working, so I'm going to have to give you a brief description instead: It was a little, square, flat-roofed box of a rental--about 400 square feet. Twenty feet by twenty feet. And since I'm less than 2 inches shy of being six feet tall, I like to keep it in perspective by saying it was three-and-a-half of me this way by three-and-a-half of me that way. I also like to say that the bugs were just letting us live there. The windows were cracked (or BB gunned) and painted closed, the kitchen floor sagged over the dug-out basement, and the plaster walls and ceiling were peeling and had a recurring mold that I couldn't seem to bleach away. We fixed it up the best we could--repainting, re carpeting, putting up a little white picket fence--but as Mark says, it's not really possible to polish a turd. He's also the one who promised me that someday we'd look back on our years there and think of it as being our honeymoon cottage. (He's that kind of optimist.) And really, the first few years were all right. Well, except for the gang activity in the neighborhood, the domestic violence across the street, the burglary, the drug deals in the alley behind us, and the homeless people on our porch. We got two big dogs (to guard against the goings on in the neighborhood), and then we started a family. Now, as you might imagine, I've got lots of stories about living in this place. There's Dead Cat Bob and Fat Larry and...well, the list goes on and on. And for those of you who have read them, there's a lot of Sammy Keyes world created from that environment. "The Bush Man" and Hudson...they live "down the street". The Salvation Army? It's right around the corner. As is St. Mary's church and the mall and the police station... But really, I need to reign this in and talk about the reason I'm bringing this up in the first place, and that's Christmas. I love a Christmas tree. Everything about it -- the smell, the look, the lights, the ornaments--it's like a festive piece of outside in the comfort of inside. We did not have room for a regular tree in this house. With two big dogs, two small kids, and us, we barely had room for ourselves. So every year we'd store a bunch of our stuff under a collapsible table, put a table cloth that draped to the floor over it, and pop a little table-top tree on top of it. And every Christmas I would tell Mark, "This is the LAST Christmas I'm going to spend in this house!" 400 square feet felt like 200 on a good day, but around Christmas that shrank to about 100. But it takes some time to save up enough to buy your own house, and since neither of us had a job that paid a lot, we scrimped and saved and dreamt of "next Christmas". One year turned into two, turned into five, turned into ten, and meanwhile, I was getting up early in the morning before work to write a little on these stories about a girl named Sammy. I had a dream that someday I'd be a published novelist, and even though no agent or editor in New York seemed to share that dream with me, I wrote four complete Sammy Keyes books at a fold down desk, using the edge of the bed as a chair. Ten years in this house turned into twelve, and finally we'd saved enough money to start building our very own "dream house". Too bad for Mark, because shortly after we started the process of building our own house, I got my book deal with Knopf / Random House for the Sammy Keyes books. And right around the time we moved in, Sammy Keyes and the Hotel Thief won the Edgar for Best Children's Mystery. So of course everyone thought we were now "rich" because of Sammy, not because we'd scrimped and saved and lived in cramped quarters for a dozen years. But anyway, back to the tree. We now get a full-sized tree. (An entertaining process in and of itself, as Mark likes the bushy pine and its pine-y smell, and I love a fir and how it allows you to dangle ornaments between the branch levels. You should see us in a tree lot battling it out.) Anyway, this year we found the most beautiful tree ever--not huge, just perfect for the space we put a tree--tall and not too broad. (It is a fir, but even Mark agrees that it's the most beautiful tree ever.) We spiraled white lights through it, and hung ornaments that are all music related, with "drums only" on one side (my concession to my drummer-boy husband, for bringing in a fir instead of a pine). But the point is, since we've moved I always think of Christmases in our little rental and how far we've come. And I know that I wouldn't appreciate the tree I have now, if I hadn't gone through several years of table-toppers. And no, I don't look back on the little place as being a honeymoon cottage. I still have nightmares about spiders. But I do see the value in having lived there. I recognize that from struggle comes appreciation. I also think that trying to forget about the past interferes with appreciating the present. I don't romanticize those dozen years, but I don't shove them from my mind either; I'm not glad I experienced them, but I do appreciate how they've help shape my outlook. I'm really, really glad for what I have.