Syracuse, NY 13210
Volume 12, 2012
Picture a Box
“Do you remember when we painted that box? And it was so beautiful?”
The voice floating up to me was as hopeful as a dandelion wish; if it was a bit doubtful that I would find the box, it had no doubt at all that I would recognize it by the description.
I did remember the box, although I smiled to think of it as beautiful. Dusty, brown and battered, it initially bore the marks of something too eagerly yanked from it, as well as months forgotten in a crawl space, awaiting a “you never know” moment when it might be useful.
Dragged out during his visit and set on newspapers on the porch, it had looked to him more awesome than beautiful at first—maybe because its size dwarfed his three-year-old self, maybe because it was all his to transform. And, bliss, it came with the tools to do so, a jar of red paint and one of blue.
His response to the jars was immediate, the little voice firm that “only one person can have red.” The face, however, betrayed a slight anxiety that Higher Authority, which even three has learned exists, might disagree as to who that one person should be.
As they say, “as if” when the Higher Authority is Grandma. He had all the red he desired to drench his part of the box into one of the fiery volcanoes that currently fascinated him, while aimless blue streaks floated lazily over mine, the work of one whose artistry today lay only in being with another.
A rather fierce little other, I realized, as the red grew thicker, the volcano darker, and the sides began dripping with the boiling hot lava into which, the voice promised, we would soon be hurling our enemies.
For as we painted, we had become—and how had I missed that—not mere mortals but Super Heroes, the world’s only hope against the Jokers, Cat Women, and Lex Luthors that threatened its order.
To be sure, it was “boiling hot yava” into which we would plunge “Yex Yufor” and his ilk, but not even the most enchanting lisp could hide the conviction that as there is Higher Authority in this world, so, too, are there Good and Evil—and what joy to fight on the side of the Good, wrapped as we were in the powers that guarantee victory!
His voice called me back to long gone days peopled not with Super Heroes but with a Catholic child’s Michael and Lucifer, the glorious archangel thundering down the halls of heaven after He-Who-Would-Not-Serve, who fell ever closer to the lake of fire that would dim his light forever.
I suspect few modern children hear much of Michael and Lucifer, eternal damnation being now politically incorrect, the idea that God can be Love while stoking the crackling coals awaiting some of his children equally untenable.
I have lost, with no regret, my own belief in that world.
But what I have also lost, to great regret, is belief in the world that enfolds my tender painter, one in which “the wrong shall fail, the right prevail, and all shall be well again, we know.”
What I know is a world that takes a father with no more thought than a monkey gives to plucking fruit from a tree . . . a father who was the Just Man of the Old Testament, who smiled at little girls clomping about in his wingtips, sang lullabies to the little girls of those little girls, who walked honorably with others all his days and was taken too soon from a world that did not let him go gently.
I know a world that then takes a sister, a woman who gave the rear view mirror only enough attention to enter more easily into the amazing life ahead; who knew that wine and love needed, like beauty, no excuse for being; who could read the cards and find the good in Death and left behind no one who will ever see the good in hers.
And I know a world in which love, which the Bible promises is as strong as death, is sometimes not strong enough for life, vanishing in grief or rage so inchoate as to make the Furies stand silent in awe. And I have found myself too often lost and angry in this world, wishing, to as much effect as did Lucifer, that there was a better one to serve.
The small artist has no such thoughts. He lives still in a world in which his parents daily make all things right and he makes all things his own. On the day that we resurrected the box I had saved for him, the volcano, once so beautiful, was merely so yesterday; and he paid it no more attention than he gave to the lack of a magic cape. A chunky wooden whistle, loved long ago by his uncles, made him the engineer of a shiny red train, and we flew through an imaginary wind over an imaginary track on a journey whose destination he felt no need to name.
I was the seasoned passenger on that ride, perched on a chair behind the box, hurtling into a future that became the present, and then the past, faster than a child who believes that to imagine is to make real grows into a woman who cannot. I saw how he still drove a train that went where he wanted; I thought how my tickets to the Hall of Justice had left me too often at the Legion of Doom, with the hope, but no promise, that a better train would come along.
On some days, one does. Today’s ticket took me far beyond Justice, sat me behind an engineer whose small face radiated such joy that I saw again my sister, so glad for every morning, and saw myself, in the keeping of the box, as the father who cared for what was dear to his children. I began to see how the journey all of us take may run better fueled not with anger or sadness that the world is unjust, but with gladness that what is good, well loved, is never lost, only found in another place...the way a battered box becomes a volcano of righteousness, a train of freedom, a cauldron of joy that will outlive both.
So much older and wiser than my traveling companion, I will become wiser still and ask only for what he asks—not a destination, but a lifetime of boxes so lovingly transformed that I will say every day what I hope to say on the last one: “I do remember that box. And it was, indeed, so beautiful.”
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