Previous Challenge Entry (Level 4 – Masters)
Topic: FRAGILE (02/23/17)
TITLE: My Fortress of Solemnity
By Jan Ackerson
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Satisfied that my serious nature didn't indicate some dire state of childhood depression, my parents let me be, appreciating my quiet outlook and appreciating even more my rare smiles.
When I was eight, I often played alone in the basement; there was a crawlspace down there where my dolls acted out melodramas. One afternoon, I moved a box aside to clear a space for the current production when I saw a carton I'd never noticed before.
I pulled it out; it was very light, seeming to consist entirely of packing material. But when I rummaged around, I found some Christmas ornaments of exquisite beauty. I didn't know then the words to describe them, but I do now: they were iridescent hand-blown glass, so fragile that I felt they might shatter were I simply to breathe while holding one. I gingerly brought one to my mother.
"Mom," I said, "Look. Where did we get these?" I knew they had never hung on our tree; our ornaments were sturdy, because of my two brothers.
My mother took the ornament carefully from my hand. "These belonged to your grandmother," she said, holding the beautiful globe up to the light. It shimmered there, humming a little as she ran her thumb over the glass.
"Nana?" I tried to imagine Nana with such a thing. Nana wore cowboy boots, and rode motorcycles.
"No, sweetie, your other grandmother, the one who died before you were born. She was my mother, and these were hers." She kissed the ornament tenderly and gave it back to me. "Put it back in the box, please." She didn't tell me to be careful--I knew well that the tiniest pressure would break the delicate thing. I walked down the basement stairs, cradling it in both hands.
I took those ornaments out many times after that, always marveling at the interplay of colors that shone on their surface. They reminded me of the oil slicks that sometimes formed in our garage, or of the rainbows that danced in the water Dad sprayed from our garden hose.
When I was eleven, I was holding one of the ornaments to the light from the basement window when a black spider skittered across the floor. I dropped it in slow motion, and watched as a million tiny pieces flew up and glittered in a beam of sunlight--the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen. It lasted forever, but it was over in a second. I gathered as many shards as I could into my tee-shirt, and took them to my mother.
I was prepared for tears or anger, but she took one look at the contents of my shirt and said, "Oh, sweetie. Hold that away from your tummy while I..." She pulled the shirt over my head from behind, gathering all the fragments inside. "Go put something on," she said. "It's fine."
When I returned, she examined my face--more solemn than usual, with the addition of guilt and apprehension.
"Sweetheart," she said, "I love these ornaments. They’re one of the few things I have of my mother. But they’re not more important than you are. I wouldn't give you a second of sadness over something I know was an accident." She put the shirt in the wastebasket, then touched my cheek. Hoping, I think, for a smile.
That night, with an undefined sense that I should somehow preserve my grandmother’s ornament, I retrieved the tee-shirt and cut out a saucer-sized circle, encrusted with infinitesimal shards of multicolored glass. I gathered it into a bundle, tied it with ribbon, and hid it in a drawer.
When I was nineteen, my English professor said, “Pick a partner and discuss the symbolism of this poem.” A fellow with a zillion freckles scooted his chair toward mine and said, “Let’s do this,” and my fortress of solemnity shattered in a heartbeat. I’d had no idea it was so perfectly delicate.
He makes me laugh every day, every day, and every Christmas we find a place on our tree for a beribboned bundle of glass shards.
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