I grew up in an old farmhouse that has been passed down in my family for three generations, my siblings and I being the fourth that ran up and down its creaking staircases and slept on its wide balcony during the summer months. The rooms are big with high ceilings, and the windows look out on the green yard, and cow pastures and alfalfa fields beyond. The whole third floor of the house is the attic, and was filled with boxes and trunks full of four generations’ pictures, documents and unknown treasures. My brother and sisters and I loved that attic. We loved rifling through its photo albums, old cigar boxes and blanket-draped piles. My parents, particularly my father, frowned upon our expeditions into the winter cold and summer hot space. Having stored his own childhood in the attic, my father did not trust his own children to not barge into those closed boxes and dusty papers of memories. Undeterred, whenever we could, we would climb the steep and dusty steps regularly and search through the remnants of three generations’ lives and laughs, and loss.
There was a mattress against one cracked, yellowed wall, in between the non-functional fireplace and the raised platform with a purpose still unknown. On one of our expeditions, one of us knocked that mattress over. There was no reason for us to do this, except for the mere fact that we could. But, it could have been fate, because behind the mattress was the door. It was small, only four feet high, with a small door latch that would not turn when we attempted to open the door. Who ever tried to open it didn’t try hard, because we knew that this door was special, and its opening should be monumental.
My brother, two sisters and I grew up creating fantasy worlds in the backyard. Fairyland was just beyond the gate that led to the pasture behind the house. Hungry beetles covered the floor of the living room on rainy days, which made it necessary to jump from chair to couch to table in fear that we would be devoured by the carnivorous bugs. We could create elaborate villages using Fisher Price Little People who were savagely stalked by Star Wars alien figurines. We grew up with fairy tales and mystery. We thrived on the magic of possibility. When we found that door behind the mattress, we knew, we just knew, that this was the chance we had been waiting for. The door was our portal to adventure.
C.S. Lewis’ Narnia was a favorite fantasy world for us. We had read the book - my older sister the whole series - and envied the four Pevensie children. The story of siblings who discover a wardrobe in an empty room in their uncle’s secluded country home gave a tangible edge to our imagination; this book gave us hope that we too could find an entrance to the fantastic world of our imagination. Through a wardrobe, between two tall trees, in the bottom of a cupboard, or, even inside a door never opened - we would find the way to adventure.
This door was special, but we needed a plan. We couldn’t just walk into a new world. Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy were terribly unprepared for their voyage into Narnia. The cold and dangerous landscape left them vulnerable, though they were able to find trustworthy friends that provided them with food and shelter. My sisters and brother and I knew we could not assume anything. Secretly, we collected supplies: food and water, sweaters for layering, a flashlight, a knife, a lighter, paper and pencil. I also remember specifically that my brother decided that we needed a candle to test for oxygen, or lack thereof. He reasoned that the room had been closed for a long time, and therefore, the space beyond would be oxygen-deprived. A lit candle would quickly go out without oxygen. I am not sure that I saw the logic of this, but we all went along with this part of the plan.
We waited until both our parents would be gone to open the door. In Narnia, time passed, but time on Earth remained the same. We were not sure what the reality would be for our situation, but just in case, we didn’t want our parents to notice that we were gone and worry. So when we heard the back door slam several days later, we went into action, grabbing multiple backpacks, thermoses, and jackets. The attic door was at the top of the stairs to the second floor; we opened the old wooden door and climbed in single file the steep and narrow stairs to the attic.
Memory does not not allow me to remember much of who did or said what in the next few moments. I just remember standing in front of the door - smaller than any of us with a small knob, surrounded by a yellowed, cracked wall. How long ago had it been since it was last opened and who opened it? Most importantly, what was beyond the wooden door that had been hidden by an old mattress in the attic of our family home? Breathing was surely rapid and communication was largely non-verbal as we decided who would open the door. I remember a mixture of fear and excitement and the knowledge that I did not want to be the one who would open it. I think it was my brother - my twin and the only boy - who opened it. We stood behind him with backpacks, and a lit candle as he tugged on the small knob forcefully.
The door came open suddenly and we shoved the lit candle inside the dark recess. As the flame brightened the space, we four sighed as one, our discovery made. Four pairs of eyes focused on the open door’s void together, our breathing timed as one. What lay beyond the door is difficult to describe, and will not be found in any records where useful places are catalogued. What lay beyond the door was a space that became over time an image seared into memory, unchanging and protected.
I have started thinking more about this childhood memory in the past six months. My father passed away in 2007, and shortly after, my mother began showing the odd and sometimes brutal signs of dementia. Last May, my brother and sisters and I made the incredibly difficult decision to put mom in the care of a nursing home. It is the hardest thing I have ever had to do as an adult, more trying even than caring for my father as he battled lung cancer. My siblings and I were faced with an unappealing task after mom was safely in the care of professionals. We needed to clean out our childhood home.
Adulthood can be heartbreaking, more so than childhood, because as adults, we know what we have lost. Adulthood can be all business, all work and no play. Adulthood is about life insurance and making hard decisions and cleaning up vomit at 3 am. Adulthood makes me feel so old. When my sisters and brother and I started cleaning out the house, there were moments where the memories of childhood seemed so very present, so tangible that it was as if I had never left the house, had never grown up, had never had children of my own. We found the angel chimes from Christmas and crayon drawings to Daddy or Mommy. We went through Dad’s old vinyl record collection, and saved the ones that we had once listened to, over and over 30 years earlier. We discovered love letters our parents had sent to each other and the scribbled notes our mother wrote to us as she began her descent into the gray world of dementia. We laughed and cried, and at times, we just walked away from an area if it was just too much to deal with at the time.
Finally, in October we had a date set for an estate sale. The Sunday before, we were all there and the attic was one of our last areas to cover. We went through boxes of Mom and Dad’s college textbooks, got distracted by an old box of mementos from our great-grandfather, and discussed whether or not to sell Dad’s model train sets. We wondered why our attic had ended up as the home of a distant relative’s keepsakes and why our grandfather and his brothers had made plaster casts of their faces as children which we found in a trunk.
The door was there, closed, and unnoticed in the efficiency of time restraints. But I brought up the memory to my brother and sisters, and yes, they all remembered it too. Funny, how each of us had differences in our memories; my older sister had no recollection of my brother’s candle theory. We decided to open it again, to see what was behind it. Several of our children were with us; a new generation who appreciate fantasy, but most certainly do not store their hopes and dreams in it. We stood in front of the door, breathing as one, waiting for what lay within.
When I looked inside, it was not what I remembered at all. The reality of what was beyond the door was not accurate in my memory. Our children, the sixth generation turned away, already forgetting the contents. Despite my misleading memory of what was beyond the door, the magical wonder of it in my memory was correct. For one brief moment in my adulthood, I had felt it again. I think my sisters and brother and I all did, as we shut the door again, and turned away back to the difficulties that were very present and demanding. But it was real, that feeling, and it is one thing that we will never sell or put out with the trash. The magic of possibility is still there in the door, and within each of us.