Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
A Box Labeled “Tinsel and Lights”

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Photo by Twyla Burger. See more of Twyla's work on her Flickr site www.flickr.com/people/twylaburger

In June of 2015, my​ ​parents​ cleaned​ ​out​ ​the​ ​crawl​ ​space​ ​underneath​ ​my​ ​childhood​ ​home and sent me away​ ​with​ ​a​ ​box​ ​of​ ​my old memorabilia​. Around that same time, I'd quit my job as a speech therapist to stay home with my two young sons. I was still adjusting to my new routine, and nap time was just about the only window I had to myself between breakfast and bedtime. On the back deck, I crouched over my​ ​forgotten box​ ​of​ ​mementos in the afternoon sun, sifting through ​pictures,​ ​poems,​ ​drawings,​ ​journals,​ ​essays,​ ​and stories. There was ​an​ ​alarming​ ​amount​ ​of​ ​what,​ ​at​ ​first,​ ​looked​ ​like​ ​trash,​ ​but​ ​turned​ ​out​ ​to​ ​be​ ​scraps—of paper,​ ​napkins,​ ​coasters—that​ ​I'd​ ​used​ ​to​ ​record​ ​rough​ ​combinations​ ​of​ ​words.​ ​What looked,​ ​decades​ ​later,​ ​like​ ​a​ ​symptom​ ​of​ ​latent​ ​hoarding​ ​tendencies​ ​was​ ​actually an indication that whatever I'd written​ ​was​ ​once​ ​meaningful​ ​to​ ​me.​ ​Because​ ​at​ ​one​ ​point,​ ​writing was​ ​most​ ​meaningful​ ​to​ ​me.​ ​This​ ​forgotten​ ​box,​ ​though​ ​more​ ​an​ ​example​ ​of​ ​quantity than​ ​quality,​ ​allowed​ ​me​ ​to​ ​admit​ ​that​ writing ​was​ ​still​ ​meaningful​ ​to​ ​me—that​ ​I​ ​missed​ ​it​ ​and wanted​ ​it​ ​back.

As I combed through the box of my old writing, I thought of a Whiskeytown song called "Houses on a Hill," which depicts a man stumbling across a stash of old letters "in the northwest corner of the attic in a box / labeled 'Tinsel And Lights.'" The letters were written to a former lover by a woman we presume is the narrator's mother-in-law. Her lover had gone off to war with her picture "in the pocket that was closest to his heart." He never returned, the photo having become "a target for the gunman . . . when he hit shore." The song's residual effect is the sad understanding that the woman's heartbreaking legacy of love and loss was ultimately reduced to a pile of paper, gathering dust for so long that it ceased to be a part of her story as the world knew it.

With ​"Houses on a Hill" playing in my head like the soundtrack to the ceremonial sorting of my own forgotten writing, I thought of​ ​my​ ​grandmother. Much as the song describes, her copious letters were written half a century ago. Unlike the unburied treasure before me, however, her letters were mailed off into oblivion; whatever​ ​she'd​ ​found meaningful​ ​enough​ ​to​ ​write​ ​down​ ​was​ ​gone.

My​ ​dad​ ​has​ ​many​ ​memories​ ​of​ ​his​ ​mother​ ​writing​ ​letters.​ ​She​ ​was​ ​originally​ ​from France,​ ​but​ ​would​ ​live​ ​out​ ​her​ ​days​ ​in​ ​North​ ​Carolina,​ ​having​ ​married​ ​an​ ​American​ ​soldier she​ ​met​ ​during​ ​World​ ​War​ ​II.​ ​She​ ​went​ ​home​ ​from​ ​time​ ​to​ ​time—once​ ​to​ ​give​ ​birth​ ​to​ ​my father,​ ​her​ ​firstborn,​ ​and​ ​several​ ​times​ ​to​ ​visit—until​ ​she​ ​was​ ​too​ ​old​ ​to​ ​make​ ​the​ ​trip. Otherwise,​ ​most​ ​of​ ​her​ ​correspondence​ ​with​ ​her​ ​former​ ​life—her​ ​mother,​ ​her​ ​siblings,​ ​her friends,​ ​and​ ​the​ ​branches​ ​of​ ​her​ ​French​ ​family​ ​tree​ ​that​ ​continued​ ​to​ ​extend​ ​in​ ​her absence—was​ ​through​ ​the​ ​letters​ ​she​ ​wrote​ ​and​ ​received.​ ​She​ ​was​ ​gifted​ ​in​ ​art​ ​and language​ ​and​ ​had​ ​come​ ​of​ ​age​ ​while​ ​France​ ​was​ ​under​ ​German​ ​occupation.​ ​Her​ ​English and German skills​ ​got​ ​her​ ​a​ ​job​ ​as​ ​a​ ​translator​ ​in​ ​Paris,​ ​working​ ​in​ ​the​ ​same​ ​office​ ​as​ ​my​ ​grandfather, who'd​ ​been​ ​injured​ ​in​ ​Italy​ ​and​ ​reassigned​ ​to​ ​her​ ​location​ ​because​ ​he​ ​could​ ​speak​ ​French. Family lore suggests they were involved in "gathering intelligence" related to the war effort, but details are sketchy and difficult to confirm. After the war, she​ ​​followed​ ​him​ ​to​ ​the​ ​other side​ ​of​ ​the​ ​ocean and married​ ​him ​in​ ​a​ ​long​ ​white​ ​gown made​ ​of​ ​repurposed parachute​ ​material​. She​ ​raised​ ​five​ ​children​ ​and​ ​pursued​ ​a​ ​later-life​ ​career​ ​as​ ​a​ ​high school​ ​French​ ​teacher.

By​ ​the​ ​time​ ​she​ ​passed​ ​away​ ​in​ ​her​ ​early​ ​80s,​ ​most​ ​of​ ​those​ ​memories​ ​had​ ​been obscured​ ​or​ ​erased​ ​by​ ​Alzheimer's disease.​ ​"She​ ​was​ ​speaking​ ​nonsense,"​ ​my​ ​great-uncle​ ​later​ ​told me​ ​of​ ​the​ ​last​ ​time​ ​he'd​ ​visited​ ​her​ ​in​ ​the​ ​States;​ ​he​ ​openly​ ​lamented​ ​that​ ​his​ ​sister,​ ​who had​ ​once​ ​excelled​ ​in​ ​multiple​ ​languages,​ ​had​ ​ultimately​ ​lost​ ​her​ ​grip​ ​on​ ​all of them.​ ​She​ ​had​ ​led​ ​a fascinating​ ​and​ ​complicated​ ​life,​ ​but​ ​I'd​ ​been​ ​too​ ​young​ ​and​ ​self-involved​ ​to​ ​ask​ ​her​ ​about​ ​it when​ ​she​ ​was​ ​mentally​ ​and​ ​physically​ ​available​ ​to​ ​me.​ ​While​ ​I​ ​have​ ​my​ ​own​ ​memories​ ​of her​ ​hunched​ ​over​ ​her​ ​desk​ ​in​ ​the​ ​act​ ​of​ ​writing​ ​letters,​ ​I​ ​have​ ​no​ ​way​ ​to​ ​verify​ ​what​ ​she wrote​ ​about.​ ​Maybe​ ​her​ ​letters​ ​were​ ​no​ ​more​ ​than​ ​handwritten​ ​small talk,​ ​amounting​ ​to the cliché​ ​"family​ ​newsletter,"​ ​focusing​ ​on​ ​the​ ​positive​ ​and​ ​conveniently​ ​omitting​ ​any​ ​awkward details:​ ​how​ ​little​ ​so-and-so​ ​eats​ ​his​ ​weight​ ​in​ ​glue,​ ​how​ ​bigger​ ​so-and-so​ ​got​ ​sent​ ​home from​ ​school​ ​for​ ​showing​ ​her​ ​panties​ ​at​ ​recess.​ ​Regardless, ​the​ ​fact​ ​that​ ​she​ ​spent​ ​so​ ​much​ ​time writing​ ​these​ ​letters​ ​seems​ ​to​ ​imply​ ​that​ ​writing​ ​them mattered to her,​ ​in​ the​​ ​way​ writing​ ​matters to me,​ ​especially​ ​now​ ​that​ ​I​ ​am​ ​a​ ​mother​ ​myself.

I​ ​am​ ​neither​ ​well-read​ ​nor​ ​widely​ ​read,​ ​but​ ​I​ ​have​ ​always​ ​written.​ ​I​ ​wrote​ ​because​ ​I wanted​ ​to.​ ​Because​ ​I​ ​loved​ ​it.​ ​I​ ​shrank​ ​from​ ​competition​ ​and​ ​had​ ​no​ ​desire​ ​to​ ​taint something​ ​I​ ​enjoyed​ ​with​ ​the​ ​idea​ ​that​ ​my​ ​work​ ​wasn't​ ​good​ ​enough.​ ​Nevertheless,​ ​I​ ​still craved​ ​an​ ​audience.​ ​So​ ​I​ ​sought​ ​out​ ​the​ ​least​ ​critical​ ​fan​ ​base​ ​I​ ​could​ ​assemble.​ ​There​ ​was my​ ​first​ ​grade​ ​teacher,​ ​who​ ​copied​ ​my​ ​poem​ ​about​ ​rainbows​ ​in​ ​giant​ ​handwritten​ ​letters onto​ ​a​ ​poster​ ​board​ ​for​ ​display​ ​on​ ​her​ ​classroom​ ​door.​ ​And​ ​my​ ​sister,​ ​who​ ​proudly​ ​delivered to​ ​her​ ​fourth grade teacher ​each​ ​installment​ ​in​ ​my​ ​series​ ​about​ ​a​ ​precociously​ ​obnoxious child​ ​who​ ​had​ ​​National​ ​Lampoon​-style​ ​adventures​ ​like​ ​"The​ ​Little​ ​Genius​ ​Goes​ ​To​ ​Europe." And the​ ​same​ ​fourth grade teacher, later mine, who left​ ​me​ ​supportive​ ​comments​ ​in​ ​the margins​ ​of​ ​the​ ​composition book​ ​where​ ​I​ ​penciled​ ​in​ ​my​ ​responses​ ​to​ ​daily​ ​writing​ ​prompts​ ​like, "What​ ​would​ ​you​ ​do​ ​if​ ​you​ ​woke​ ​up​ ​to​ ​find​ ​a​ ​Leprechaun​ ​in​ ​your​ ​room?"​ ​And my​ ​ninth​ ​grade English​ ​teacher,​ ​who​ ​publicly​ ​applauded​ ​my​ ​excessive​ ​use​ ​of​ ​descriptive​ ​adjectives​ ​by presenting​ ​my​ ​essay​ ​to​ ​the​ ​class​ ​as​ ​an​ ​example.​ ​That​ ​essay​ ​was​ ​subsequently torn​ ​apart​ ​by​ ​my​ ​classmates,​ ​who​ ​collectively​ ​accused​ ​the​ ​anonymous​ ​writer​ ​of​ ​sounding like​ ​an​ ​eighteenth-century​ ​grandma.​ ​Nevertheless,​ ​a​ ​little​ ​recognition​ ​along​ ​the​ ​way​ ​was enough​ ​to​ ​keep​ ​me​ ​going,​ ​even​ ​if​ ​it​ ​wasn't​ ​entirely​ ​necessary.​ ​Writing​ ​was​ ​something​ ​I would​ ​have​ ​done​ anyway ​for​ ​my​ ​own​ ​private​ ​satisfaction.

Reading,​ ​meanwhile,​ ​was​ ​just​ ​okay​ ​by​ ​me.​ ​It's​ ​not​ ​that​ ​I​ ​didn't​ ​like​ ​stories.​ ​Reading​ ​just​ ​seemed​ ​like​ ​an excruciatingly​ ​uninteresting​ ​hobby—and​ ​my​ ​persona​ ​was​ ​teetering​ ​on​ ​the​ ​edge​ ​of​ ​nerd-dom as​ ​it​ ​was.​ ​People​ ​who​ ​didn't​ ​know​ ​me​ ​already​ ​described​ ​me​ ​as​ ​"quiet."​ ​Adding​ ​"bookish"​ ​to my​ ​profile​ ​threatened​ ​to​ ​trigger​ ​an​ ​advance​ ​on​ ​my​ ​invitation​ ​to​ ​the​ ​Future​ ​Cat​ ​Ladies​ ​Of America​ ​Club.​ ​But​ ​I​ ​was​ ​also​ ​a​ ​people-pleaser.​ ​A​ ​rule-follower.​ ​An​ ​overanxious​ ​doer​ ​of homework.​ ​So​ ​I​ ​diligently​ ​read​ ​everything​ ​ever​ ​assigned​ ​to​ ​me.​ ​

In spite of myself,​ ​I​ ​liked​ ​it.​ ​Just about​ ​all​ ​of​ ​it.​ ​From​ ​middle​ ​school​ ​all​ ​the​ ​way​ ​through​ ​college.​ ​Often​ ​I​ ​liked​ ​it​ ​for​ ​the​ ​stories, but​ ​more​ ​often​ ​for​ ​how​ ​people​ ​wrote​ ​them​ ​and​ ​for​ ​the​ ​chance​ ​to​ ​write​ ​my​ ​own​ ​essays​ ​in response.​ ​​Huckleberry Finn​ ​made​ ​dialogue​ ​come​ ​alive​ ​with​ ​characters​ ​that​ ​spoke​ ​like​ ​real people ​​I'd ​​encountered ​​growing​​ up ​​in ​​the ​​South. ​As I Lay Dying manipulated ​​time​​ and narration ​​in​​ a ​​way ​​that​​ apparently ​​existed ​​in​​ storytelling ​​long ​​before ​P​​ulp​​ Fiction ​​​blew​​ my mind​ with its flashbacks​ ​and​ ​flash-forwards​.​ ​​The Catcher in the Rye​​ reminded​ ​my​ ​14-year-old​ ​self​ ​that​ ​I​ ​didn't​ ​invent sarcasm,​ ​despite​ ​what​ ​every​ ​kid​ ​that​ ​age​ ​likes​ ​to​ ​think.​ ​​The Great Gatsby​ drew​ ​me​ ​into​ its​ ​world​ ​of​ ​lavish​ ​parties​ ​and​ ​complicated​ ​people​ ​hiding​ ​in​ ​plain​ ​sight.​ ​​On the Road ​echoed the​ ​chaotic​ ​wandering​ ​of​ ​my​ ​college​ ​years,​ ​when​ ​at​ ​the​ ​very​ ​least​ ​my​ ​consciousness​ ​was all​ ​over​ ​the​ ​place.​ ​And​ ​the​ ​little​ ​gems​ ​I​ ​picked​ ​up​ ​in​ ​French​ ​class​ ​left​ ​a​ ​lasting​ ​impression​ ​on me:​ ​"The Necklace"​ ​with​ ​its​ ​cautionary​ ​tale​ ​and​ ​ending​ ​twist​ ​and​ ​Moliere's​ ​plays​ ​with​ ​their clever​ ​take​ ​on​ ​silliness.​ ​Reading​ ​shaped​ ​my​ ​thinking​ ​and​ ​my​ ​writing,​ ​but​ ​it​ ​was​ ​never​ ​the natural​ ​hobby​ ​for​ ​me​ ​that​ ​writing​ ​always​ ​was.

The​ ​older​ ​I​ ​got,​ ​however,​ ​the​ ​harder​ ​it​ ​was​ ​to​ ​avoid​ ​competition​ ​and​ ​to​ ​insulate myself​ ​from​ ​the​ ​possibility​ ​that​ ​my​ ​writing​ ​wasn't​ ​good​ ​enough.​ ​Part​ ​of​ ​me​ ​always​ ​wanted​ ​to challenge​ ​myself​ ​as​ ​a​ ​writer,​ ​while​ ​another​ ​part​ ​actively​ ​fled​ ​from​ ​the​ ​pressure​ ​of​ ​proving myself​ ​or​ ​comparing​​ my​ ​work​ ​to​ ​other​ ​people's.​ ​In​ ​college,​ I​​ ​experimented with a journalism minor​ and an​ ​English major,​ ​​but ultimately abandoned both. I'd​ ​read​ ​every​ ​classic​ required by​ ​academia​,​ ​but​ ​could​ ​only​ ​quote​ ​poems​ ​I'd​ ​memorized​ ​as​ ​a​ ​French​ ​assignment.​ ​I had​ ​not​ ​read​ ​for​ ​pleasure—probably​ ​not​ ​​ever​​ ​in​ ​my​ ​life.​ ​I​ ​still​ ​wrote​ ​papers​ ​for​ ​school​ ​and funny​ ​poems​ ​for​ ​my​ ​friends​ ​and​ ​family,​ ​but​ ​I​ ​was​ ​increasingly​ ​private​ ​about​ ​my​ ​writing​ ​and gradually​ ​allowed​ ​the​ ​task​ ​of​ ​growing​ ​up​ ​to​ ​overshadow​ ​it.​ ​It​ ​became​ ​a​ ​mere​ ​personal interest,​ ​not​ ​immediately​ ​relevant​ ​to​ ​my​ ​adult​ ​life.

Even​ ​so,​ ​there​ ​were​ ​moments​ ​that​ ​cast​ ​a​ ​warm​ ​light​ ​on​ ​the​ ​dark​ ​corner​ ​where​ ​I'd hidden​ ​my love for writing.​ ​Like​ ​the​ ​day​ ​I​ ​stumbled​ ​upon​ ​a​ ​copy​ ​of​ ​​Me Talk Pretty One Day​ by David​ ​Sedaris​ ​while​ ​killing​ ​time​ ​in​ ​a​ ​Barnes​ ​&​ ​Noble​ ​between​ ​shifts​ ​at​ ​a​ ​nearby​ ​restaurant.​ ​I had​ ​taken​ ​a​ ​year​ ​off​ ​between​ ​college​ ​and​ ​grad​ ​school​ ​to​ ​wait​ ​tables​ ​for​ ​no​ ​particularly​ ​good reason,​ ​and​ ​my​ ​brain​ ​was​ ​not​ ​thriving​ ​on​ ​its​ ​current​ ​diet​ ​of​ ​Pint​ ​Night​ ​black-and-tans​ ​and withered​ ​nachos.​ ​Unlikely​ ​to​ ​read​ ​anything​ ​unassigned,​ ​I​ ​had​ ​no​ ​idea​ ​where​ ​to​ ​start​ ​in​ ​a bookstore;​ ​I​ ​picked​ ​up​ ​the​ ​first​ ​title​ ​that​ ​caught​ ​my​ ​eye.​ ​Before​ ​I​ ​could​ ​finish​ ​the​ ​giant​ ​coffee drink​ ​I'd​ ​purchased​ ​from​ ​the​ ​obligatory​ ​in-store​ ​Starbucks,​ ​I'd​ ​read​ ​the​ ​first​ ​essay,​ ​"Go Carolina," about ​Sedaris's childhood​ ​experience​ ​with​ ​speech​ ​therapy—the​ ​field​ ​I​ ​was​ ​about​ ​to​ ​enter. I ​laughed​ ​out loud when he described his speech therapist with disdain as "a person for whom the word pen had two syllables" due to her heavy Western North Carolina accent. When he went on to insist that "her people undoubtedly drank from clay jugs and hollered for paw when the vittles were ready," ​I​ ​practically​ ​snorted​ ​iced​ ​latte​ ​onto​ ​the​ ​text. As​ ​I​ ​finished​ ​my​ ​newly​ ​purchased​ ​copy​ ​at​ ​home, ​I​ ​related​ ​with hilarity​ ​and​ ​humility​ ​to​ ​his​ ​essays​ ​about​ ​growing​ ​up​ ​in​ ​North​ ​Carolina​ ​(as​ ​I​ ​had),​ ​and​ ​living​ ​in France​ ​(where​ ​I'd​ ​completed​ ​a​ ​semester​ ​abroad​ ​less​ ​than​ ​eight​ ​months​ ​before).​ ​While discovering​ ​that​ ​book​ ​did​ ​nothing​ ​to​ ​dissuade​ ​me​ ​from​ ​speech​ ​pathology,​ ​it​ ​changed​ ​my perception​ ​of​ ​what​ ​writing​ ​could​ ​be.​ ​There's​ ​such​ ​a​ ​thing​ ​as​ ​creative​ ​nonfiction?​ ​It​ ​blew​ ​me away.​ ​Maybe​ ​I​ ​couldn't​ ​write​ ​it​ ​as​ ​well​ ​as​ ​he​ ​could,​ ​but​ ​I​ ​knew​ ​I​ ​could​ ​write​ ​about​ ​those kinds​ ​of​ ​things.​ ​Because​ ​I​ ​already​ ​had.

Almost 15 years after discovering Sedaris's work and just a few months before uncovering my box of old writing, ​my​ ​husband​ ​took ​me​ ​to​ ​see​ ​Sedaris​ ​read​ ​at​ ​a​ ​nearby performing​ ​arts​ ​center​. ​My​ ​husband​ ​knew​ ​I was​ ​a​ ​fan​ ​and​ ​had​ ​always​ ​been​ ​hugely​ ​supportive​ ​of​ ​my​ ​own​ ​writing,​ ​which​ ​had​ ​amounted to​ ​little​ ​more​ ​than​ ​birthday​ ​card​ ​inscriptions​ ​and​ ​wedding​ ​toasts​ ​in​ ​the​ ​years​ ​that​ ​he'd​ ​known me.​ ​Since​ ​the​ ​birth​ ​of​ ​our​ ​children,​ ​I'd​ ​shared​ ​more​ ​and​ ​more​ ​with​ ​him—little​ ​pieces​ ​about​ ​our kids—and​ ​I​ ​always​ ​derived​ ​tremendous​ ​satisfaction​ ​from ​his​ ​genuine​ ​laughter​ ​and​ ​sentimental tears.​ ​Sedaris'​s ​writing​ ​had​ ​managed​ ​to​ ​inspire​ ​me​ ​at​ ​a​ ​time​ ​in​ ​my​ ​life​ ​when​ ​being productive​ ​was​ ​more​ ​important​ ​to​ ​me​ ​than​ ​being​ ​creative,​ ​and​ ​seeing​ ​him​ ​read​ ​his​ ​work aloud​ ​in​ ​person​ ​was​ ​like​ ​finding​ ​that​ ​box​ ​of​ ​old​ ​writing​ ​in​ ​its​ ​metaphorical​ ​form.​ ​I​ ​laughed,​ ​I cried,​ ​and​ ​I​ felt ​inspired​ ​all​ ​over​ ​again.

Moving away from writing had been part of growing up for me. I had established a fulfilling yet practical career and worked as​ ​hard​ ​and​ ​as​ ​fast​ ​and​ ​as​ ​much​ ​as​ ​I​ ​could​ ​until​ ​I​ ​looked​ ​up​ ​and​ ​hardly recognized​ ​myself.​ As​ ​a childless adult​, ​my​ ​hobbies​ ​had​ ​consisted​ ​of​ ​drinking​ ​wine​ ​and​ ​watching​ ​embarrassing​ ​amounts​ ​of TV. Writing for pleasure was packed away and only dusted off for special occasions. But​ ​like​ ​so​ ​many​ ​grown-ups​ ​will​ ​tell​ ​you,​ ​having​ ​kids​ ​alters​ ​your priorities;​ ​I​ ​was​ ​no​ ​exception.​ ​As​ ​I​ ​slowed​ ​down​ ​and​ ​watched​ ​my​ ​boys​ ​grow​ ​from​ ​babies into​ ​cognizant​ ​little​ ​people,​ ​I​ ​admired​ ​the​ ​pure​ ​joy​ ​with​ ​which​ ​they​ ​pursued​ ​their​ ​developing interests​ ​and​ ​began​ ​to​ ​long​ ​for​ ​what​ ​I'd​ ​packed away​ ​in​ ​pursuit​ ​of​ ​becoming​ ​"grown​ ​up."​ ​

In becoming reacquainted with my box of old writing, I thought of my grandmother's lost letters and the memories that decayed along with her consciousness. I thought of the woman from "Houses on a Hill," whose first love and former life were left to gather dust in a mislabeled box.​ Then​ ​I​ ​thought​ ​of​ ​myself.​ ​I​ ​thought​ ​of​ ​the​ ​scraps​ ​of​ ​essays​ ​I​ ​had​ ​written​ ​in​ ​the Notes​ ​app​ ​on​ ​my​ ​phone,​ ​while​ ​I​ ​nursed​ ​my​ ​kids​ ​or​ ​during​ ​quiet​ ​moments​ ​alone​ ​in​ ​the​ ​car before​ ​walking​ ​into​ ​work.​ ​Writing​ ​had​ ​been​ ​my​ ​first​ ​love​ ​and​ ​my​ ​writing​ ​had​ ​always​ ​been, first​ ​and​ ​foremost,​ ​for​ ​me.​ ​But​ ​now​ ​my​ ​writing​ ​was​ ​for​ ​my​ ​kids—for​ ​them,​ ​about​ ​them,​ ​about us​ ​as​ ​a​ ​family.​ ​There​ ​was​ ​no​ ​box​ ​for​ ​them​ ​to​ ​find​ ​some​ ​day, and yet​ ​I​ ​wanted​ ​there​ ​to be a box​. I needed a box, a trove, a secret stash; somewhere​ ​​they​ ​could​ ​go to read about​ ​my​ ​love​ ​for​ ​them—my​ ​frustration,​ ​my​ ​despair,​ ​my​ ​ennui,​ ​my​ ​overwhelming​ ​pride—when I was no longer able to convey it myself.​ ​

So​ ​I​ ​started​ ​a​ ​blog and named it Tinsel and Lights, my own cyber version of a box whose label has nothing to do with its contents. I filled it with ​stories​ ​about​ ​my​ ​kids​ ​and​ ​myself​ ​as​ ​a​ ​kid.​ ​I​ ​paint​ed ​verbal portraits​ ​of the​ ​standard​ ​cast​ ​of​ ​characters​ ​in​ ​our​ ​lives:​ ​the​ ​grandparents,​ ​the​ ​aunts,​ ​the uncles,​ ​the​ ​siblings,​ ​and​ ​the​ ​parents.​ ​I​ ​vented​ ​about​ ​the​ ​mundane​ ​and​ ​mind-numbing​ ​aspects of​ ​parenting​ ​and​ ​celebrated​ ​the​ ​ebullient​ ​pride​ ​and​ ​effervescent​ ​joy​ ​that​ ​bubbles to​ ​the​ ​surface in response to my kids.​ ​​I​ ​looked​ ​forward​ ​to​ ​sharing​ ​each post​ ​like​ ​a​ ​favorite​ ​dish​ ​I'd ​perfected​ ​from​ ​an​ ​old​ ​family​ ​recipe,​ ​one I​ ​couldn't​ ​wait​ ​for​ ​other people​ ​to​ ​taste​.​ ​My​ ​writing's​ ​not​ ​for​ ​everyone,​ ​but​ ​blogging​ ​and​ ​social​ ​media​ gradually​ ​expanded​ ​my​ ​audience​ ​of​ ​extended​ ​family​ ​and​ ​friends.​ ​One​ ​post​ ​was​ ​viewed more​ ​than​ ​1,000​ ​times,​ ​after​ ​newfound​ ​confidence​ ​and​ ​persistence​ ​catapulted​ ​it​ ​from​ ​my own​ ​site​ ​to​ ​a​ ​much​ ​larger​ ​online​ ​venue.

Two​ ​years​ ​since​ ​starting​ ​the​ ​blog,​ ​the kids have changed so much that both the frequency and content of my blog posts have changed along with them. I used to claim nap time as writing time, producing posts at least weekly. But now, they've aged out of naps, and I've slowly started back to part-time work as a speech therapist. I'm lucky to post once a month, squeezing in a line or two after therapy notes while they watch TV or play outside. Now that my kids have begun to navigate the world as tiny sentient individuals, I've had to think more critically about sharing private details of their development in the public sphere, because what constitutes a funny story to mommy might one day be devastatingly embarrassing to them. So, my commentary on their childhood now takes shape in more generalized humorous pieces—top 10 lists and mock conversations that help me preserve snapshots of their behavior without getting too specific in incriminating ways.

In the meantime, I've realized that another way to preserve my memories and their memory of me is to continue being memorable. That means being present and active in their lives, but also in mine—letting them see me passionately engaged in interests that exist independently of them. So much of a mom's identity gets lost in the kids; the blog has inspired me to write for the sake of continuing to write, to reflect on things my kids don't know I think about, using language more coarse or colorful than I use with them. I've started pursuing other opportunities to write beyond the blog by participating in writing contests and responding to calls for submissions, exposing myself to the type of criticism and response I once feared, but which now keeps me engaged and excited about what's possible. In doing so, I'm reminding myself as much as them that no mom is just a mom, no matter how sacred and honorable the position, and that every person is bigger than the box she might find herself in.

My​ ​writing​ ​is​ ​still​ ​primarily​ ​for​ ​me​ ​and​ ​those​ ​close to​ ​me,​ but sharing​ ​my work ​with​ ​a​ ​larger, more critical​ ​audience​ ​has​ ​been​ ​an​ ​exhilarating​ ​exercise​ ​in​ ​catharsis and​ ​connection.​ ​It​ ​has​ ​allowed​ ​me​ ​to​ ​place​ ​my​ ​fears​ ​of​ ​inadequacy​ ​and​ ​failure​ ​among​ ​those  things ​more​ ​suited​ ​to​ ​a​ ​forgotten​ ​box​ ​in​ ​the​ ​attic​ ​than​ ​a​ ​love​ ​that other​ ​people​ ​can​ ​share.​ ​In​ ​rediscovering myself as a writer,​ ​I've finally​ ​begun to unpack my lost love and​ ​embraced​ ​an​ ​opportunity to​ ​tell​ the ​stories​ ​I​ ​want​ ​others​ ​to​ ​remember. My kids are too young to appreciate it now, but I'm hoping this labor of love—for family and for the act of writing itself—will make my voice indefinitely available to them, unwrapped through the written word like a gift ready to be shared, whenever they need to hear it.


Leeny Sullivan writes about family and motherhood with a mix of sincerity and profanity on her blog Tinsel And Lights. She lives in North Carolina with her husband and two young sons. You can find her work on Scary Mommy or follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.


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Twyla Burger is a graphic designer and photographer from Texas.