IN ORDER TO LIVE
During a lull, my writing class talks about the upcoming Christmas holidays, the presents, the dinners, the visits home. I describe my discovering Santa Claus wasn’t real the Christmas Eve my parents got loaded and made me fetch all the presents from the upstairs hall closet behind the rollaway bed and cart them down the stairs myself, shove them under the Douglas Fir next to the small ceramic nativity set shrouded in slivers of white cellophane.
My teacher whistles a puff of air between his thinning lips. Says, “Man, that’s a great story.”
I shake my head. Explain how they apologized later, when I was in junior high after they’d each done a couple of turns at Hazelton, got sober.
The teacher ignores me, goes on about how the story does a great job using symbolism, the way one incident stands in for all the mistakes that fall under the heading of bad parenting. Of course no one would really do that to a kid, he says. But because it’s so unthinkingly cruel, because it offers such a stark, stripped down example—a single incident involving a terrible betrayal of an innocent—it says a lot about the horrible mistakes humans make in the process of parenting children, reminds us how vulnerable our best intentions are. The other kids in expository writing decide his “vulnerability of our intentions” bit is really the nuts and nod, raising their eyebrows.
Not yet tearing up, I tell them it’s not a story about parental failure. My parents had me bring the presents down so my younger brother and sister wouldn’t wake up to find nothing under the tree on Christmas morning. My parents did it out of love.
“Jim,” my writing teacher looks at me, asks, “Can you remember what we said on the first day of class is the reason we tell stories?”