Hatbox Elegy

On June 11, 2013, I went to confession. I wept the whole time.

On the wall of my room at home hangs the lid of a hat-box. It was a cardboard hat-box; I say “was” because I have no idea what happened to the actual box. I decorated it—box and lid—at a Quaker retreat once, long ago, in 2004 to be exact. I know this because amidst the many other decorations I wrote, “I have just graduated from fourth grade!”

The lid was always more elaborate than the box. In fact I don’t remember anything about the box at all. But the lid—round, white cardboard, about a foot and a half in diameter—depicts a blonde girl (I conceived of myself as blonde then) on a swing, surrounded by many colored pieces of tissue paper glued in a haphazard collage. There are several rabbits as well. It was back when I had a rabbit called Shadow Luna. We had to give her away when we moved to Botswana; but this was before. This was right before.

In the oddest way, I remember what it felt like, to have this as an identity. The rabbits, the way I chose to design a t-shirt for myself that said “Books + Peace = Paradise,” and also wrote “I love jokes” prominently across the top. I also listed, all over the place, the names of every one of my teachers from preschool through fourth grade. I like reading. I can do cursive. Around the outside of the lid I wrote the names of the games I used to play with my friend Margaret.

No pierced ears allowed, it says towards the bottom. I have pierced ears now. I remember the angst of piercing them at age 18, how I felt I was letting myself down—but not myself. My fourth-grade self. This girl, who sat on this swing. fifth grade here I come! she wrote, not knowing that instead of fifth grade, she would move to Africa.

The one other thing I remember about the particular Quaker gathering where I decorated the hat-box was that they asked us what we thought about when we imagined God. I said that God was like swinging on a big, big swing. The next day, we had a water-gun fight during fun time. (Now that I think of it, this was not very pacifist.) My teacher chased me around the playground with a water gun, shouting, “I love swings! I love swings!” It was playful, perhaps. But the girl who drew the swing on her hat-box didn’t think so. She smiled and let it pass, but decided that there was something wrong with her.

I lit a candle for Grandma Mimi in the Michaelskirche, the day I went to confession. I’d been walking down Neuhauserstrasse every day after German class, and this time, I stopped by the massive doors and peered inside, and decided, right then, that the appropriate thing to do was to confess. After all, I’d never done it and maybe I’d been missing out, those years of sitting in Quaker Meeting silently, counting to 3,000 and wishing God would show up already.

So I went inside and sat on a pew with my paperback copy of Anna Karenina on my lap, partly as a talisman against religion but mostly because it was a comfortingly boxy bulk to hold.

Quakers don’t have churches like the Michaelskirche; Meeting Houses are plain and wooden. I gazed up at the white sweeping windowed dome, the pearly ornaments that ice the niches between arch and column; the graceful figures, cloth billowing forth off of their bodies, who guard the house of God.

The Observatory is up Science Hill. Outside there is a swing, and you can see all of New Haven spread beneath you in lights. They are all there, strings of them like blinking yellow Christmas lights across the city, and above hang the stars. It is like the scene in Mary Poppins where she stands on her cloud with her carpet bag. In the special features section of the VHS version, we learned that the creators of Mary Poppins painted all of London on a sheet of black glass, and the lights you see in the film are really little lights that they shone through the glass to make them twinkle like thousands of stars, bright constellations against the darkness of the city. A boy took me there a few weeks before I flew to Germany. I didn’t tell him that I watched Mary Poppins in my grandmother’s living room, on her brown carpet, and that she died, and that I miss her every day. I just inhaled the darkness and thought about the stars and how we were on the top of a dark hill underneath them, and the swing.

On June 11, 2013, I went to confession. I wept the whole time.

The first—and really, only—thing I confessed was that I am not a Catholic, I’m a Quaker, and I wasn’t sure if I was allowed to be there, but I was.

The priest said that that was okay.

This is what happens to things in my house: they stay in one place for a while, and then they are cleaned out, and move to the basement or garage, and then I rummage through there and bring them back. I refuse to let things die. I always bring them back, cupped in my hands or behind my back so my mother won’t see me ferrying them the wrong way.

I’m back from Germany now. From where I am sitting on the couch I can see fifty-odd board games, including a few I made myself, perched on the top of gangly Ikea shelves; Barbie patterns; Yogaerobics rubber-coated weights, a plastic model skeleton with movable joints; my Raggedy Ann doll. I find a yellow envelope marked Confidential. Inside are papers. I slide them out.

On the top lies a State of New Jersey Certificate of Death dated September 10, 2012. Name: Mary Ann Buckingham. Age: 80. Cause of death: pulmonary embolism. Secondary cause of death: colon infarct. Underlying condition leading to cause of death: bipolar disorder.

I read the entire certificate and flip to the next page. It is a second copy. I go through the entire pile of papers. They are all copies of the same Certificate of Death. They pronounce my grandmother dead 17 times.

On June 11, 2013, I went to confession. I wept the whole time.

I didn’t think I would. I sat in the Michaelskirche for an hour and a half before I had the courage to walk up and wait in the line. First I watched all of the Catholics do it. I wondered if there was a protocol. I thought for a while that you had to alternate which little cubicle you went into, but then someone broke that pattern. I was back to square one.

Instead of worrying about Catholics once I got into the cubicle, I wept.

My dad once told me that at one point, I wanted to be a doctor. I said, Really?

Because, as my best friend and I often lament, there might be a world where we are engineers and doctors. But then we agree, That Ship Has Sailed.

Or really, I think of it as big spheres, these two universes that are drifting away, or really moving quite fast, and we are in one, but engineer-him and doctor-me are in the other, barely visible through the opacity of the orb, which I imagine as a little bit of a rhubarb or honey color. And it is funny, to think that Mimi will never know which one I ended up in. We parted ways before I reached this fork in the path.

Will she be able to find me?

Weeping and crying are not the same thing. We cry over movies or stories, but weeping is rarer, I think. Weeping is with your whole body and your voice, where water tumbles out of you in small and big waves.

I wanted to tell the priest that it was because the rose marble in the great sculptures of Christ and all the chapels was the same rose color as the porcelain in Mimi’s bathroom, that was why I was crying; why was I crying? For the hours watching Mary Poppins on her brown carpet, for the way she answered the telephone with “He-ay-lo”; but it was also for the girl on the swing who would never know me, to whom Nineteen was the oldest age anyone could possibly be, when you no longer had to separate the food on your plate, for whom grandparents were soft carpets and Snickers ice cream, for the beauty of the starlit night when Levin lay face-down in the grass and realizes that God is irrational, that we see a vault with stars when we look at the night sky, even when we know it is empty space, we know it, yet we still see the curve of a sphere, holding us in, keeping us whole. We cry for our loved ones, we weep for ourselves.

Right beneath where it says I have graduated from fourth grade, my hat-box says, in lop-sided (but perhaps surprisingly neat?) fourth-grade green-marker handwriting,

I see you.

Originally published in the Voices section of the Yale Herald.