It had come down to digging through garbage. The two 20 gallon trash containers, sitting side by side behind a decorative wood slat structure were overflowing with things my mother had recently decided we no longer needed: kitchenware, food, jackets, clothes, family heirlooms, toys, books, photographs and each and every last gift wrapped holiday present.
My family had moved to Diablo, California two years earlier. In those two years things had not gone well. There was a divorce that I was old enough to feel some relief about. The relief was short lived. Soon after my dad moved out, the fighting stopped, but other things changed, and not for the better.
When we first moved to northern California, I had extraordinary freedom. I slept alone outside in the rolling hills near our house all summer. My friend Chris and I rode horses up Mt. Diablo and camped for days on end. My mom would occasionally drive up the mountain and drop off boxes of food that we ate around a campfire, adding mustard seeds we picked from the wild yellow and green stalks that grew everywhere. With flair, Chris and I would toss handfuls of seeds into our cans of chili or spaghetti o’s.
My dad, like many dads, worked long hours. My mom got a job as a realtor and was out most of the day and many evenings showing homes. I learned how to cook what I thought at the time were fairly elaborate meals including omelets and grilled cheese sandwiches with tomatoes. I got myself to school and generally took care of myself. When I got lonely, I brought my pony, Merrylegs, into the house. I even brought her upstairs to show her my bedroom. This, as you might imagine, did not go over well. To this day, it remains a mystery as to how my mom was able to clean hoof prints out of the carpet and I am still a little surprised that my pony was able to navigate our staircase.
I am not sure if the years of unrestrained freedom, or ponies in the living room eventually became too much for my mom, or if the chemicals in her brain morphed in response to some unidentified stimuli, but she began to change. No longer was I allowed to ride my dad’s green Schwin bicycle to school. A 10-mile ride through windy tree lined streets that I loved. One morning, I begged and pleaded enough that she relented, after insisting that she follow me in her car the entire way. I pounded the petals, pumping as fast as I could in a vain attempt to get away from her hovering shadow. My sister and I now had to come straight home from school, had to sit in the back seat of her car reading TinTin comics while she showed houses to strangers. She bolted the front door. No more camping or sleeping outside. No more after school adventures in the hills next to our house. Friends were told not to stop by.
Then, things changed again.
She arrived unannounced at my elementary school one morning claiming the principle was trying to poison us with pencil lead. We were taken out of after school sports, and no longer allowed to attend parties or school functions. She began to turn pictures around on the walls. She told me that my sister was supposed to be born a boy but the doctors changed her gender at the hospital. When I asked what gender I was supposed to be, she looked at me, her blue eyes cold and hard and said, “The doctors didn’t know what they were doing. I know that now. Stop listening.” I had no idea what she meant. Recently, she had started saying things that made no sense to me. At that point, her crazy phrases as I called them, were the least of my worries.
On Saturday mornings, in addition to pancakes and cartoons, my sister and I were told to scour the house looking for tiny microphones. Sometimes this was fun. I would pretend I was a brave girl detective solving small important domestic mysteries or uncovering international spy rings. Other times, it was scary. I wasn’t sure what would be more frightening: finding a tiny microphone, or never finding one. I began to whisper when I talked and often felt as if I was being observed even though no one was around. There were new dangers we were told to be aware of and new rituals we had to follow. For a few months, we had to eat three Tums nightly. I remember stacks of Tums on my bedroom dresser. She would sit at the end of my bed, quietly waiting for me to finish chewing, then get up to leave, refusing my plea to close to door.
This was also the year my mom threw out most of my clothes. I ended up with two basic outfits to wear to school. Having only two basic outfits to wear to school was, among other things, a grade school girl’s worst nightmare. I tried desperately to mix and match like they told you to in TeenBeat, but, I lacked the necessary statement accessories. I was loosing friends.
My dad, just beginning to realize the depth of the delusions, tried to get us out of there. It took a long time. While he was fighting courts and filing paperwork, he would occasionally stop by Green Valley Elementary School to visit my sister and me. Sometimes he would take us out for lunch, ask how we were doing. Fine. You get used to it. You figure out how to get by day to day. You work out routines, ignore the sad looks from adults and pretend not to see the sneers from your schoolmates. You wrote in your journal, watched TV and slowly let go of the hope that your mom would suddenly snap out of it and things would return to normal.
As the holidays arrived, so did my mother’s madness. I saw her screaming at the mailman one day, yelling at him to take back the boxes he tried to hand her. He didn’t take them back and my mom threw them all in the trash. For some reason, watching her methodically put each holiday wrapped box, each letter, each large seasonally decorated envelop into the garbage was the point when I realized things were bad.
When things are bad, you look for the silver lining. Or in my case the silver and white boxes of Norwegian candy my grandmother sent every year at Christmas. My sister and I snuck into the decorative wood slate barricade. I gasped. Our two garbage cans were over flowing with holiday fair. Red and green boxes, sliver containers with snowflakes, dark chocolate and marzipan bars, two holiday wreaths with plastic lingonberries and the silver and white boxes of Norwegian candy. I started yanking things from the cans, while simultaneously stuffing a hastily unwrapped marzipan bar in my mouth. I wasn’t sure how much time I had, and I was desperate to cram as much stuff as I could into my Charles Angles backpack. Earlier that morning I had dumped my schoolbooks behind the large oak tree in our driveway. That way, I could fill my empty backpack and smuggle my goods into the house. I pictured sauntering casually past my mom, waving hello Yes, school was fine, no Mr. Tincanus didn’t make us re-do our history assignment. Gonna go do homework. Be downstairs in a bit. Bye.
I wanted time to open each box, one by one. I wanted time to decide what to keep and what I would, under the cover of night, put back in the two metal garbage cans. My sister, slightly smaller than me, despite our being twins, was able to perch on a wooden platform to the left of the cans, a pile of boxes of all sizes next to her. She was taking a different approach. While I stuffed everything I could into my backpack to be sorted out later, she took a box, shook it, looked at the label and after studying it for a moment would either place it in her ever growing pile or discard it by tossing it on the ground. There were advent calendars and small blue boxes with white snowflakes that we know were jewelry from Farfar, our paternal grandmother who lived in Norway and who, every year, sent my sister and I delicate jewelry that I inevitably lost or broke while riding horses, or playing kick ball. My sister was more careful than I and had a pile of gold heart pendants, tiny turquoise rings, and brass bracelets with square lip gloss containers welded on the top to prove it.
After cramming our backpacks with as much candy, small pink and green marzipan pigs, toblar bars, tins of fruit candies and boxes of unidentified gifts as we possible could, we casually sauntered into the house. We walked past our mom, making after school noises: yeah, school was fine, got a lot of homework, be down for dinner. Splitting up at the end of the hallway, we went into our separate rooms. Closing the door behind me, I sighed. I had taken measures into my own hands. Had made and followed through with a plan. There would be some kind of holiday after all.
Charlie’s Angeles backpack bursting, I sat on the floor and began removing items one by one. I took a box out, looked at it from all sides, and then carefully unwrapped the paper, mindful to not tear it. After removing the wrapping paper, I would fold it neatly and set it aside before attending to the gift, savoring the moment, enjoying the anticipation.
For God’s sake, Cristien, just open it. I could hear my dad saying. His yelling this at me as he ripped wrapping paper off one of his presents and crumpled it into a ball so he could throw it at me, was as much a family ritual as getting to open one present on Christmas eve, or eating his famous Storm eggs with Aquavit on Christmas morning. Alone in my room, I laughed out loud. I loved those moments.
Because I was a child, it is through my child’s memory that I recall my dad dropping by the house in Diablo the day before Christmas Eve that year. He was always excited about Christmas. 363 days of the year he was more focused on neurons, particle receptors and office politics than anything else. But Christmas Eve and Christmas morning, he lit up. He would shop like a mad man a few days before Christmas. If you were lucky enough to be invited to go with him, you were treated to a running monologue about cooking, the right kind of beer to pair with a roast and snarky commentary about the general public. It was like being allowed to enter his inner circle. I felt important when he told me to go get a bag of Brussels sprouts or demonstrated how to choose between cuts of meat. He would let me eat half of the candy bar he brazenly opened while we shopped. It was the one time of year I felt close. He loved watching us open presents. I loved the smile on his face as he drank his cup of coffee or sipped Aquavit and watched.
In my wintery child memory, I see him at the door that year. It is the day before Christmas morning. I see him and my mom fighting. I see her taking each gift and throwing it out the door. I see him picking the boxes back up. I see them struggle. I see him push the door open when she tries to close it. They continue to argue. I am holding both hands to my ears. I cannot hear them. I see him walk away. I see her take each and every last holiday gift and toss them into the two 20 gallon trash containers, sitting side by side behind a decorative wood slat structure. I see her walk back into the house. Go into the bedroom. I see her close the door. I cannot hear anything. I go back into my room. I will have to wait until nighttime to find out what my dad bought me for Christmas. I am excited. I anticipate his excitement. I imagine his smile and for an instant I smell coffee, roasting vegetables, smoked ham. I hear the clink of glasses as he makes us toast one another. He allowed us to drink beer and aquavit on Christmas morning and I am remembering how the bubbles stung the back of my throat. I sit in my room and wait for sunset, hoping that he remembered how much I wanted a new pair of riding boots.