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Kathy Bradley

Stashed items can hold special meaning

The Saturday morning that I finally tackled the cleaning out of the attic, I found myself surrounded by a rug rolled into a long cigar, a doll cradle, Christmas tree stands of various sizes, a cooler and probably 25 cardboard boxes, some of them mislabeled. Wreaths hung from the rafters by ten-penny nails and insulation billowed up from the unfloored part of the attic like cotton candy.
    I stood in the dim light of one naked overhead bulb and wondered how I would decide which of the thousands of pieces of my history would stay and which would go. I was torn between wanting to toss everything blindly and wanting to go through every box, every file to make sure I wasn’t getting rid of something important.
    The boxes stacked on top of each other contained everything from old canceled checks to a wall calendar from 1975. In one of them was my Girl Scout badge sash, in another old school notebooks. There were doll clothes and 8-track tapes and scrapbooks with pages nibbled along the edges by mice.
    Two large trash bags and six or seven trips up and down the attic stairs later, I had reached a compromise with myself. There had been some tossing, some tears and a lot of restacking. The attic was, as a result, neater but not a lot emptier.
    The sense of righteous cleanliness that I’d hoped to attain had eluded me. The higher consciousness of detachment from tangible objects would have to wait.
    I thought about that the other day when Aden’s mom called to tell me about Christmas. At four, she shared, he finally “got it.” And what she meant by that was that the excitement this year was his own, not just a reflection of his family’s. He spent all day Christmas Eve going back and forth to the computer with his dad charting Santa’s progress around the world. “He’s in Peru!” he cried out running through the living room and, then a hour later, “He’s in Mexico!”
    On Christmas morning he went outside and found a single jingle bell in the yard. He picked it up, dark brown eyes shining, and said in near-disbelief, “It still smells like reindeer.”
    Ah. I couldn’t help smiling when she told me that. I could just see him holding the shiny jingle bell in his little boy hand and staring at it with that special brand of awe that exists exclusively in childhood and fades so slowly that one realizes it is gone only too late to halt the process.
    “It still smells like reindeer.” And I knew, then, why I’d never be able to throw away the key chain, the note scribbled on the paper plate, the name tag, the smooth gray stone, the newspaper clipping. Each one, held in my hand and up to the light, conjures up a moment, a feeling, a promise, a memory. Each one still smells like reindeer.
    Jingle bell awe exists only in childhood, but there is another kind that is available to even the most grown-up of grown-ups. It is the astonishing realization that even as our vision narrows to focus on those things like meetings and mortgages, to concentrate more and more on that which we can manage, govern or manipulate, our other senses, like those of the blind, can become more sensitive. It is the amazing revelation that we can still hear jingle bells and smell reindeer as long as we remember. And we will remember as long as there are tokens and talismans, relics and artifacts. As long as our attics and desk drawers and hall closets hold the keepsakes of our hearts.
    I suspect that the jingle bell will be around for a long time. Will probably make its way into a box, into an attic at some point. And then one day, when someone is seeking righteous cleanliness, it will reappear, dull and rusted, and, rolling it around in his hand, Aden will be reminded of the Christmas he was four years old, the Christmas he tracked Santa Claus all the way cross South America and learned what it meant to believe.

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