Sunday, January 16, 2011

Little Red Rubber Boots

We have one Christmas tradition in our family. It involves days of advance preparation, a bumpy 24-hour mile jaunt on the snow machine across the frozen ice of the Kotzebue Sound, and a motley assortment of bulky outerwear that makes us all look like homeless versions of the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man. This ritual is the "hunting of the Christmas tree." My dad's been orchestrating it since 1985. Ever year a Noatak River spruce tree, half naked on the side that lay strapped to the basket sled with bungee cords (naked because every time the sled runners hit a bump on the ice a hand full of needles fall off), completes the festive milieu.

One thing complicates this ritual: my dad's idea of organizing his stuff, in particular, 25 years' worth of cold weather outdoor clothing. He tosses everything into an assortment of cardboard boxes and stacks them in random places in the empty rooms of our house and the backyard storage shed. It takes a few days to find all the boxes.

This year, he brought out twelve cardboard boxes. Twelve boxes. Twelve boxes of hats, scarves, neck warmers, gloves, and mismatched wool socks. He dumped them into the living room and said, "We call this a dress-up party! See what you can find." I dug into the largest box, and while looking for a sock without a hole in the toe or heel, I fished out a pair of little red rubber boots. I immediately recognized them from a picture in our family photo album: I'm two years old, standing on top of a tundra cliff before the Noatak River valley, and I'm wearing these tiny red boots. I said, "I'm taking these back to Utah," and Dad warned, "Don't you throw those away. Those are family heirlooms!" Mom explained that my Aunt Nancy sent them to Noatak when she was living in England after her own children had grown out of them. The boots ended their transatlantic travels in the 80s and had spent the last 20 years buried in one of Dad's boxes.

I'd never understood my parents' compulsion to save everything. We have home videos that give you an idea of how much, and what kind of stuff, my parents used to save. There's a video of me dumping a week's worth of pre-kindergarten work out of my backpack and unfolding each paper while telling a story about each assignment. That's what they saved in the beginning—all the paper with wobbly tracings of their kids' names over dotted lines, or dittoed images of carrots and candy ("C" is for carrot and candy) scribbled in blue and carried home from kindergarten classes.

We moved three times by the time I had turned six. Moving so often must have forced my parents to throw some of that stuff away. But after we moved to Kotzebue in 1991 we had a bigger house. Therefore, we could save more stuff. The stuff also got harder to throw away as we got older. We graduated from kindergarten ABC worksheets with gold star stickers to countless extracurricular accolades from elementary, middle, and high school. All the medals, certificates, and ribbons were too good to throw in boxes in the back of the house.

So, our living room morphed into a museum that archived the relics of our childhood and adolescent accomplishments. The pictures Merella and I drew and entered into art contests hung on the ceiling. We worked in a variety of mediums—charcoal, collage, graphite, watercolor—and anyone looking at our pictures could pinpoint our discovery of linear perspective and understanding of complimentary color schemes. On the rest of the walls hung Landon's Alaska State Athletic Association medals for wrestling, and Willaby's blue ribbons from the Alaska State Science and Engineering Fair, with the titles of her projects, such as, "Identifying the Fungal Root Associates of Platanthera Orbiculata," written on the back. The walls were also covered with the numbers we pinned to our jerseys from years of running on the Kotzebue High School Cross-Country running teams, and a variety of perfect attendance certificates, congratulatory letters from the governors of Alaska, spelling bee awards, report cards, newspaper clippings that featured one of us on the front page, SAT/ACT vocabulary flash cards, copies of our graduation speeches, prom pictures, and acceptance letters to Macalester, Mount Holyoke, University of Alaska, BYU, Ripon College, Mesa State.

To me, not being able to clear this stuff off the walls and let it go was always a distinguishing feature of what I perceived to be my parents' sentimental older age. This year, C.S. Lewis and the red rubber boots put their pack rat phenomenon in perspective for me. In his "De Descriptione Temporum" Lewis says, "Nothing is ever quite finished with; it may always begin over again. And nothing is quite new; it was always somehow anticipated or prepared for. A seamless, formless continuity-in-mutability is the mode of our life."

Parenting is the story of this "continuity-in-mutability" with constant reminders of the not quite new and never unfinished. My parents saved things that suggested constant movement toward imminent independence and life on our own; they must have known that the souvenirs left on the walls would be in part what remained, after we left, to tide them over until we returned for Christmases and summers. This idea of their children growing up, leaving, and never fully returning wasn't quite new, because they'd already done it once before, when they left home themselves. And it will continue, and begin again when we have kids who grow up and away from us, and into lives more daring than what we imagine.

What I know now is that every remnant added to the walls was a reminder of what my mom and dad love most—us. This is what strikes me most about the red boots. They're signs of indelible moments that defined my mom and dad as parents, and me as a kid full of "the spirit of adventure," like the young Carl Fredrickson and Ellie in Up!, uninhibited without worrying that my boots didn't match the rest of my outfit, or how frizzy my hair was when my picture was being taken.

I'll make sure the boots are in our family for a long time. Jesse doesn't know it yet, but I intend to take pictures of all our kids wearing them. Each photo will be black and white, but the boots will be little splashes of red. I'll also document the travels of the little red boots, writing stories about all the places we went to and the adventures we had while our kids wore them. And this will be okay, because boys can wear red boots too, right? Okay, maybe we'll have to get some yellow ones. Someday I'll write a memoir or compilation of these stories and call it
Little Red Rubber Boots.

Just kidding. Who has time for that?

But when we finally take those pictures, and have those stories to tell, I'll be sure to post them. By then, at Grandma and Grandpa's house in Alaska (or wherever they are), there will be space on their walls for these pictures and stories too.