My oldest daughter, who is not fond of change, gets the post-Christmas blues even more profoundly than our Elf on the Shelf when he is boxed up and stuffed back in the closet for the next eleven months. (If she knew this was Blackberry’s perennial fate, rather than returning to his cozy home with Santa at the North Pole, she might never recover.)
She says a prayer for Blackberry every December 24th because not only does his departure signal the beginning of the end of the holiday, she genuinely misses him and the magic he brings. She cries every year when the Christmas tree is left bashfully naked on the curb to be manhandled by city workers on recycling day. There are fewer tears with each passing year, but still. We extend Christmas as long as possible by waiting until Epiphany to take down the decorations. We bake cookies, build a fire, and recount our favorite holiday memories. The children also look forward to opening the very last present under the tree on Twelfth Night. Mostly we do this in an effort to ease our daughter back into the mundane world of routine as gradually as possible, where there is typically a stark lack of magic and wonder.
Last week, I rubbed her back and sang her to sleep because she was sad about returning to school. When I asked her why that made her sad, she whispered, “Time is just whooshing by and I won’t be little for much longer.” She is eight.
My instinct is to tell her not to worry. I realize this only makes her more anxious because she cannot help it.
In an attempt to cheer her up, I reminded her that we were planning a wonderful summer vacation with the extended family. She perked up a little.
“So, we’re going back to Pawleys Island again?” she asked hopefully.
“Oh, well…not this year,” I answered carefully. “We need a bigger house since there are more of us going.”
“So we’re not staying at Seacliff again?” she asked.
Seacliff, the splintered, weathered, oceanfront house we have visited so many times with the kids, is not fancy. It is exactly the opposite of fancy with its multitude of faded sticky notes advising you to jiggle the toilet handle so the water doesn’t “jump out” upon flushing, instructing you to lubricate the curtain rod with soap before attempting to take a shower, and warning you to never, ever, ever move the special screwdriver from atop the unreliable thermostat. (I am not exactly sure why, but I am not going to be the first one to find out.) Seacliff, the place we love to tease in the way only you can mock one of your own siblings, was the single house we could afford – in the offseason.
“No, Baby, not this year. We are going to stay in a cute house at St. Simons Island instead,” I encouraged. “It’s called Avonlea.”
“Oh,” she said flatly.
“Do you want to see pictures?” I offered.
“No, not really. I am sure it is fine.”
“Why are you sad?” I asked.
“Because it will be different,” she replied.
“Different doesn’t have to be bad,” I said. “There is a pool and bunk beds and a golf cart…”
“I understand,” she said. “But that house doesn’t have all our memories in it.”
I couldn’t let her know how much I understood exactly what she meant. If she sensed my wistfulness for the time when my toddling twins first ran down the beach, holding hands and laughing as the wind tangled their hair, I would never have a chance to convince her otherwise. This was the first place we vacationed after the baby’s first clean cancer scans. Countless fortified sandcastles destroyed by high tides, sweet Jack and Ruby who vacationed next door, ghost stories of The Gray Man; I had to check myself.
“That’s true,” I countered. “But we have the opportunity to make new memories, different ones.”
“Can you show me the pictures of the old house instead?” she sniffed. I obliged.
“See that blue couch? That’s where DanDaddy always reads us bedtime stories. And that screened-in porch is where we always eat our Cheerios in the mornings. And there’s the outside shower where we wash our treasures before we spread them out on the porch to dry. And remember the year you had Mary Hazel in your tummy and you didn’t even know it yet? That was the year we danced to The Beatles in the living room. And every night, we walked across the road to the creek to see the sunset and ring the bell on the dock. Remember, Mom?”
“Yes, I remember all those things,” I nodded and smiled. “What wonderful memories we made!”
“I don’t want it to be different,” she said. “I don’t want things to change.”
“We can’t stop things from changing,” I said. “We can remember the special things and look forward to new adventures at the same time.”
“I feel like the old house will be sad if we don’t come back.”
I wanted to tell her that the house wouldn’t know, that it doesn’t have feelings, but I didn’t.
“I’m afraid that I will forget everything,” she said.
What can a mother say to a daughter whose soul is older than weathered Seacliff itself?
Sometimes, I find myself overwhelmed when trying to take the weight of the world off my daughter’s shoulders. But I think the world is probably better off being inhabited by tender souls who feel too much. These are the artists, the thinkers, the poets, the saints. Would I take away all her worry in order for her to be a happier little girl? As her mother, yes, I probably would. But sometimes, even mothers do not get to choose.
I hope my daughter will grow up to understand one day that it wasn’t the house that made those vacations special; it was the fact that she loved and felt and noticed all the things she held important. Knowing she is blessed with her father’s keen memory and her mother’s sentimentality, I am hoping to read her memoir before I leave this world, knowing the reward for her anxiety just might be a beautiful thing.
Until then, I will continue to sweep up the piles of dried pine needles and wait until my daughter is happily distracted on a play date before I drag this year’s Christmas tree to the curb and throw away the last of the wrapping paper.