Spring is the traditional time for cleaning, the earth outside echoing the internal desire to refreshen and renew.
But this year, it's autumn that finds me unearthing old boxes of memories, rummaging through bags of precious clothes from my 10-year-old daughter's babyhood, ruthlessly culling books from my shelves, and covering walls with fresh, clean coats of vibrant paint. Order -- and color -- is what I want, perhaps in some kind of preparedness against what I know to be next. Winter.
Cold, dark winter, where the days are short and the nights barely seem to end before they start again.
There are things I love about that cold season. In my years on the East coast, I have grown to be able to really see and to deeply admire the particular pale beauty of winter. Naked tree branches against a sky that is almost colorless, but not quite, such a pale, pale, gray-blue-pink; the glow of a fireplace while the freezing, inky night presses in; the rosy flush of my daughter's cheeks as she zooms down a snow-covered hill, the air alive with gleeful sledding shrieks. All of it is still wonderfully alien to this California girl.
And of course, the holidays.
The Christmas tree in my living room has transformed from our first tiny, personality-less thing into a presence that can take my breath away with gratitude, so laden is it with the ornaments we've made and collected over this brief, lifelong decade.
So, yes, there is much to appreciate about winter. Most of all, of course, without winter, spring here would not be the yearly miracle it seems. The first bursts of brilliant yellow forsythia out of the tired, muddy snow; the hesitant -- painfully, exquisitely -- slow unfurling of the smallest, tightest buds.
I stand in my daughter's room, surrounded by the contents of a formerly over-stuffed closet, trying to decide if the too-small sweater in my hand belongs to the "donate" bin or the "should donate but can't bear to part with yet" bin. The bed is buried beneath piles of satiny, glittery dress-up dresses, miniature plastic high heel, pilfered jewelry, forgotten games and chewed-on baby board books (which I will save forever), summer clothes that still smell of chlorine and sunblock and sunshine. It's chaos in the midst of becoming order, and the happy buzz of progress compels me onward in my sorting.
"What's in here mama?"
I turn to look at Isabella, see the smallish box in her hands.
"Oh," I say, as I set the too-small sweater back on the bed.
Carefully I take the box from her, carefully I open the lid. Inside, yes, there it is: a small, porcelain tea set, just the size for a little girl's hands.
"This is the tea set we bought for your Auntie Carolyn," I manage to say. "Before she was even born.
I try to keep my voice light, but I know Isabella can hear the familiar lump in my throat.
Memory is strange -- I know I'm far from the first person to make written note of that. But there it is. Strange: I have a vivid memory of buying that tea set, of walking down the main street of my Northern California hometown on a brilliant, sunny day. I am 12; my mother 36 and hugely pregnant with the baby who would, one day, become my own little girl's auntie. In my memory, my mom and I spot the tea set in the window of an antique store at exactly the same time.
"Oh!" We cry in unison, in my memory, taking in the tea set's perfection. It's "perfect" because it is, in fact, imperfect (perfectly) -- a mix-matched set in soft pinks and creams, some of the porcelain pieces with delicate flowers, others with scalloped edges, the teapot slightly cracked. It's a tea set both of us would have loved as little girls, and we know at once that we have to go in and buy it for the baby. And we do. We buy it, take it home, and keep it safely wrapped up for the day when we can present it safely to, say, the 3-year-old version of this child we can't wait to meet.
Strange, because this is all so clear in my mind, but I have to wonder if that moment outside the antique store happened after my mom already had the baby, after "the baby" was my little sister Carolyn. Because before she was born, we didn't know if Carolyn would be a girl or a boy, a sister or a brother. Did we buy the tea set anyway? Or can I re-imagine the memory slightly -- but significantly -- erasing my mom's pregnant belly and adding a little baby girl in a stroller to the picture?
Of course, it doesn't really matter. The truth is that we bought the tea set for a little girl we had in our minds, a little girl who, like me, like our mother, would cherish nothing so much as a precious, breakable, pink tea set. And that day when we carefully unwrapped the tea set and presented it to this mythical little girl never came. Not because the little girl herself never came, but because baby Carolyn never became the little girl who wanted to play with tea sets. She was, instead, a wonderfully wild child with a mind and spirit very much her own, a little girl who played with toy animals and "Army guys," who demanded to cut off all her beautiful, honey-colored hair and who wore tee shirts and jeans and who didn't seem to mind when strangers thought she was my little brother. She was a little girl with such a struggle in her soul, who seemed to come into the world with her very own set of demons to battle, yet who smiled a smile so wide, so gorgeous and full of mirth, just to think about it breaks my heart.
I stand in my daughter's room, with this box in my hand. These are the facts: We still have the tea set. We never had that little girl of our imagination -- but we had someone better. And now, unbelievably, 25 year later, we no longer have her.
Last winter, we lost Carolyn. Or, rather, she lost us. She left us. She said goodbye, she gave us her love, and she took herself away.
Days followed that first nightmare morning, three days after Christmas. Days have followed, and somehow, we've made it through them each, one by one. Somehow that darkest of winters inexplicably turned to spring. Spring brought, ridiculously, summer, and with it Carolyn's birthday, and somehow even that day passed, and another, and another, and life is carrying on, as it does, as it, strangely, should.
I have this box with the tea set in my hand. I stand in my daughter's room. I am here, we are here, tomorrow will come.
And so, I tuck the box safely back away, and resume my sorting, my organizing, and I know that I'm attempting to prepare and brace myself not because I know winter is coming, but because I know that it will come, and it will go.
April Daniels Hussar
A California girl transplanted to the wilds of suburban New Jersey, April Daniels Hussar is the Editorial Director of BettyConfidential.com and a writer whose work has appeared in The Huffington Post, Cafe Mom's The Stir, and others. She neglects her personal blog at MyFirstWordWasShoe.com.