What sticks in a child’s mind and survives into adulthood? What joy? What fear? What anger?
Forty-five years ago, my mom’s extended family rented a large cabin in Big Bear for Christmas. There must have been at least twenty of us, pretty chaotic. It was the first Christmas in seventeen years that it didn’t snow there, a fact that has nothing to do with this story, but it is noteworthy, it is mentioned every time this story is told, it is part of the family folklore—the year it didn’t snow.
I was five and running around the cabin with my four-year-old cousin, playing hide and seek or chase, I don’t remember. I go in the bathroom and lock the door. My cousin tries to get in and ha! he can’t get me. Then I go to leave and I can’t unlock the door. The doorknob won’t budge. Go get my mom, I tell my cousin. He leaves and comes back. She’s busy, he says. Go get my mom! I’m starting to panic. It’s a large bathroom—I don’t remember feeling claustrophobic, just scared that I couldn’t get out. Tell her I need her, I yell. I don’t think my cousin told her I was trapped in the bathroom. He must have been saying something general like Laura wants you.
My mom, I found out later, was in the kitchen helping prepare food for the horde. It’s not fair, I know, that moms often don’t get the credit for all the hard work they do. It is Mom who is present, Mom making sure you have everything you need, Mom soothing the upsets. But her deeds are like housework—nobody notices when it’s done. What we do remember is the one time she wasn’t there, the one time she didn’t come through. It’s not fair but a mother’s constancy is so depended upon that the breach is unforgivable. Now as an adult, as a mother myself, I have more understanding for her then. But when I was trapped in the bathroom, I was outraged that she didn’t come, shocked—where was my mom!
I must have asked my cousin to get my dad. My dad’s voice came from the other side of the door, and my uncle got some tools and removed the doorknob. My dad hugged me and said he would always get to me, nothing could keep him from me, words I have never forgotten. And then I inexplicitly took that moment to ask, “Is there really a Santa Claus?” My dad didn’t say no or yes but explained something to the effect that the world was a big place and Santa needed help, so parents help. That satisfied me and off I went.
Later I accused my mom, “You didn’t come!” “I was cooking,” she said. “Your Dad came.” And she was right. Kids often think one parent failed them while the other came through, not realizing that parents are more than a team, they are a unit, what one does is to the credit of both, that parents often divide duties so they can conquer each day, and the triumph is not in both being there every time for their children but that one of them is, while behind the scenes the other is making money or making dinner, one of those vital tasks needed to maintain a family.
That Big Bear Christmas, I got a Barbie airplane, a fact as essential to this story as the lack of snow, and just as indelibly imprinted on my mind.