A piece on Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog this week, “Do I Have an Essay Here? Thoughts on Writing Small,” got me thinking about a recurring theme, worry, preoccupation of mine—the relative merits of time spent writing the big thing versus the little thing.
The big thing being whatever it is I think I should be writing—epic, game-changing novel; sweeping, resonant memoir; insightful essay on the meaning of life—yadda yadda, sis boom bah, get over yourself. The little thing being all those seemingly disparate moments, impressions, snippets of conversation, and more than anything, memories, that I've got stuck in my head and that seem to want, to need, to be told, recounted, gotten down, somewhere, by me.
Rachael Hanel, author of the Brevity article writes, “I want to be that essayist who can write about the small.” Me too. The big and the small. The big in the small.
Mid-morning my daughter-in-law sends me a text. She asks if I can take my grandson to his gymnastics class. Pick him up early from daycare, she writes. He says he has a "ginger house" to do.
I am always surprised by what a three-year-old child remembers. The week prior he’d spied the boxed gingerbread kit on top of the refrigerator and I’d promised we would build it together.
At my house, he rushes for the kitchen where four miniature gingerbread cottages sit on two squares of cardboard covered with foil. He is disappointed that I stuck the thick slabs of brown cookie together without him, sealing side and roof panels with tacky white frosting to give them time to set before his arrival.
I wanted to build them, he says.
I saved you the best part, I say, the decorations.
We move the gingerbread houses on their trays, tubes of red and white frosting and packets of colored candies to the table in the dining room.
My grandson sticks it in his mouth. As he sucks, his expression changes, from cautiously optimistic to disgusted.
He spits the glistening green glob into his palm. Eat this, Grandma, he says. It’s yours.
I snip open clear plastic packets of shiny green and red candy buttons and colored sprinkles. I draw frosting lines on a roof panel and struggle to decorate my lines with a pattern of alternating colored buttons, in loose facsimile of the perfect cottages in the photos on the box.
The candies are too small for either of us to handle easily. They stick to our frosting-covered fingers.
My grandson slides off the chair and skips into the front room.
Play with me, he calls out.
I’ll be right there, I say, let me finish decorating. Giving up on perfection, I smear clumps of red and white frosting onto the houses and pour the sprinkles on top, hoping some will adhere. Most of the tiny colored balls bounce off the sloped roofs and ping as they hit the faux-wood flooring, where they skitter in all directions like a broken strand of pearls.
Come, Grandma, play with me.
I pop a yellow gumdrop in my mouth and give up on the ginger houses.
I flip a switch at the base of the tree and all the windows in the houses glow yellow.
Which house do you live in Grandma?
This one I say, touching a pale-blue Victorian with a smoking chimney.
No, that one’s mine, he says, don’t you remember. This one is yours. He points to one near the base, with two carolers singing in the snowy yard.
There’s nothing inside, right? His frown is matter-of-fact.
The previous Christmas, when he was two going on three, the tiny wrapped presents had fascinated him. He inspected and shook them, tugged at the ribbons and paper edges and begged me to let him unwrap one. He persisted until I relented. One wasn’t enough. He opened three, revealing three disappointing chunks of Styrofoam, before he believed me.
This year he quickly sets the fake package aside.
He scoots tin train engines across the coffee table, muttering under his breath. There are four of them, shiny painted metal, with ornate cowcatchers, rounded barrels and smokestacks, open cabs for the engineer. Each has a working bell and the year painted on its side—1985, 1986, 1987 and 1989. They were annual purchases from the Hallmark store during my second marriage, when my grandson’s father, my oldest child, was a boy. I stopped collecting the little engines after we split up, shortly after the birth of my second child. 1988 and 1990 are missing.
You took two of them home last year, didn’t you? My grandson considers for a moment then nods.
Does this one light up too, Grandma, he asks, picking up a smaller porcelain tree.
No, it plays music, I say. I turn the crank on the bottom. The familiar notes of Jingle Bells tinkle from the tree.
Hey, I know that song, he says.
Me too, I say.
His eyes light up at the coincidence. Sing it, he says.
And we do.
As my family has expanded and contracted over the years, I’ve sewn many stockings, using the one my grandmother made as a template.
Two Christmases ago, I constructed stockings for a son’s girlfriend, a petite redhead with a golden ring through one nostril, and her daughter, who was close to my grandson's age now. It was their second Christmas with us. I’d thought it was time they had their own.
One evening I sat at my mother-in-law’s kitchen table, hurrying to finish the stockings in time for Christmas morning. I’d sewn a felt girl onto the girlfriend’s stocking, in a winter coat, with pointy black boots and a droopy checkered jester's hat with a ball on its end.
Give the girl red hair, my mother-in-law said.
I threaded a strand of embroidery floss and gave the felt girl plaits of bright red hair beneath the hat.
My mother-in-law fished a length of broken necklace from my box of remnants. She removed one of the links and held it out to me with an impish grin. She needs a nose ring, she said.
I attached the tiny ring to the felt girl’s nose.
Though I imagine it’s time, I’ve hesitated to strip their names from the backs of the stockings. I’d warned my son it wasn’t wise for the little girl to call him Daddy. He’d thought me hard-hearted, I know. And I was, I suppose, for the child’s sake.
I may not bring the stockings out at all this year or perhaps only for the grandchildren.
I wonder if, next year, my grandson will remember which of the houses on the porcelain tree is mine, if he'll talk to the train engines and if he'll still want to play with his old grandma.