Boxes in the Attic

5:19 PM




I must have been around 6 or 7 when I discovered the humid, over-stuffed playground in my grandparent’s attic on Lone Oak Road in Nashville, Tennessee. My parents were on a trip to Europe, and had left their four daughters with our grandparents.

My time in Nashville that summer is hazy, infused with childhood dreamlike contradictions: insecurity and adventure, the friendly faces of cousins, aunts, and uncles mixed in with relatives I knew I should know but didn't, ecstatic hide-and-seek in not-all-familiar territory with an air of potential danger, and treasured jars filled with fireflies...when I could catch them. The primary paradox lived in the shifting emotional tone of our visits to Nana's house. This was a home rich in family tradition and convivial feasting over collard greens and ham, peaches and hand-cranked ice cream, where the jovial atmosphere was awkwardly balanced against the terrible foreboding created by my grandmother's stern-yet-mysterious expectations. Very young, and impulsive by nature, it felt like walking a tightrope blindfolded, or playing a high-stakes game without really understanding the rules.

At Nana’s house, I sensed it would be prudent to stay out of rooms with closed doors, but the attic housed an extra bed for visiting family, so when my young aunt and uncle were staying upstairs during one of our visits, I was either invited, or I convinced myself that my normal boundaries would be suspended. I climbed up the hollow-sounding steps to have a visit with my 19-year-old Aunt Trish, and decided to stay a while.

Of course, it was like being on safari for a little adventurer, with mannequins and hat boxes, hangers and old desks, lamp stands and strange boxes of peculiar medical equipment; my grandmother was a registered nurse and a pack rat. Each step leading to the attic was weighted with stacks of boxes, every one a mystery; under the boxes, and in between, there were magazines and recipe books taking up any leftover space. It was a challenge to move around without bumping into something, but we were always very careful to leave Nana's piles undisturbed.

Once I was in the attic, however, caution faded as I began to relax, shooting the breeze with my charming Aunt Trish who always made me feel welcome and safe. The feeling of safety would be temporary. I was "roughhousing," jumping on the bed, encouraged by my still-teenage hostess who understood little girls; her sister was about my age at the time, and she knew I needed something fun to occupy my attention.

There was a playful misstep, a minimal slip on the mattress, causing a few items to tumble off of the bed. If not for the accumulated piles of miscellaneous junk, the incident would have led to a simple collapse of a single pile of hat boxes. Instead, this little accident turned into a catastrophic avalanche causing stacks of boxes to slide down the stairs, picking up new stacks as they tumbled down the stairs. I think I forgot to breathe for a while as I observed the disaster, and waited for a response.

My grandmother appeared, and although her face didn’t betray any emotion, I started to panic. She demanded an accounting, but I knew it wouldn’t matter; there would be no pardon. I pleaded, and so did sweet Trish who tried to take responsibility for both of us, but I was taken into the bathroom alone and spanked with something harsh, rubber tubing of some sort. Corporal punishment didn’t need justification; it was understood that I was responsible for my behavior, and I assumed I should have known better. The thing is, I didn’t know better. It was no more than an accident.  A mistake. I vividly remember feeling terrified, hopeless and alone.

Nana's way really wasn't that unfamiliar to southerners in the 50s. Fear was understood to be an appropriate child-raising tool, and spanking, acceptable training. I imagine my grandmother was doing what she thought was best, and if she is demonized in the telling of this memory, it just wouldn't be fair. The severity, the traumatic tone is due to the perspective: it’s the littlest part of me that lived it, and she experienced the moment from a position of powerlessness and shame.

Because I was so young at the time, this event has lived on the boundary line between my unconscious and conscious mind...an aberration, a true-enough-ghost-story that has served as a cautionary tale, with hard-wired lessons that have infiltrated their way into my DNA, living and breathing with guaranteed safe-passage between my gut and brain-stem. Free reign. Uncontested influence. The memory faded but the lessons, the assumptions, remained.

This happens. Emotionally packed events from our past become our behavioral drill sergeants, barking orders from the underbelly of our day-to-day awareness. Rarely investigated, our emotions don’t need justification; they require only compliance. Like any ghost that makes its home in the shadows, however, an emotionally charged habit-of-mind can, in fact, be challenged simply by turning on the lights.

And what do we find when we turn on the lights and sort through the tattered boxes that have fallen out of the attic?

No longer little, if we are bold enough and patient enough to sort through the clutter, we find wordless, unjustified beliefs constructed, perhaps, by a baffled 7 year old girl in a moment of panic, and these lessons are often unreasonable. 

Mistakes, even accidents, are inexcusable - there will be no pardon.
It won't help to explain. Errors in judgment must be hidden or denied.
It is my responsibility to know things that I don't know.

Under the light and out of the shadows, we can see that while our emotions are telling the truth of our experience, the assumptions are flawed...and in that moment, the ghosts become powerless.




Attic bedroom image by Ben Husmann from Chicago, USA 

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