by Cynthia Lee

Tomorrow is a Mystery in the Attic

How do you characterize yourself? I mean, really think about it: are you born who you are, or do you get to choose later in life? Where do you even find a model to go by, anyway?

Personally, I don’t worry about all that stuff anymore. I mean, I guess I sort of think of myself as  a book –I’ve got my underlying theme, my overall mood, I live in a very lively setting every day, and my friends are truly endearing and amazing characters, just like in a fable. My life just falls into whatever sort of fable I want it to be (i.e., Monday Morning Chapters are usually pretty gloomy, but Friday Afternoon Parables are typically ecstatic). And to boot, my life’s ballad will end the same way every other ballad does: exactly as the author intended. I mean, that kind of gets back to the whole discussion about “are you really in control of your own life?” and “is the glass half empty or half full?” My answer: You have complete control over your glass, mister, and on top of that your glass is whatever you please, and I don’t really care what you choose; just don’t tell me my answer is wrong when I make my choice.

I do enjoy suspending my own “control” over my identity every now and then, and instead characterizing myself based on my ancestors’ wild reputations. It’s sort of like stage acting, for me: in my mind’s eye, I can don any mask I wish, any identity I want. And the best part is, the blood of these bandits and royals and gangsters actually runs through my veins, so who knows that I’m not really getting in touch with my true character anyway? It gives you something to think about.

The ironic thing is that I don’t have the patience for historical research, so I don’t really have any evidence for all these family legends to present to you. On the other hand, my family is a nest of pack rats–been that way for generations–so I don’t have to go far to get inspiration for the stories. It’s just a trip to the attic.

I like crawling around up there; the thrill of danger is palpable. See, our attic is above the garage ceiling, about forty feet in the air above a concrete foundation, and the only way to get there is with a freestanding ladder up to the trap door. After you’ve survived the perilous climb up these cliffs, you must wriggle through the door and hold yourself against the rafters on the other side for balance. If you step on the drywall, you’re sure to fall through to your death in the concrete gorge below; only the rafters are strong enough to stand on. So you can only hop from one tiny two-inch beam to the next all the way across this cave of a room. Trapeze artists have safer jobs.

But it’s all worth it in the end; braced over beams, straddling the gorge below, are crates upon boxes upon trunks of yellowed family photos, wedding gowns, papers, records, hats, thank you cards, ration cards, love letters, stamp collections, baby clothes, tea pots, broaches, lamps, gloves and all kinds of treasure. There’s the faded photo of Bonnie and Clyde; Bonnie was my great-aunt, supposedly. Here are the World War Two ration cards my grandpa bought food for his farm with: they still have the dates stamped on them. Here’s my ancestor’s favorite church hat with a big purple bow in the back. Over there are my mother’s journals and senior photos (at seventeen she looked like an angel in high heels). There’s even a tiny corner for me, a place to shove all my baby clothes and my art projects (complete with a five-year-old’s flair for obnoxious spaghetti-o stains and finger-painting). Mom keeps my baby photos closer to her in her bedroom closet; they’ve yet to migrate to the cave.

How do I characterize myself? Well, today I can put on my great-great-cousin’s World War One army helmet and go storm the trenches between the trunks of the attic. I tell you, it never gets old, pretending to be a soldier with mortar flying and grenades exploding. I always feel a little guilty just trying to imagine life in the trenches and how horrible it really was, and yet nowadays in my school everyone is complaining about a couple of bullies. One time one of those bullies targeted me, since I was wearing Cousin Jimmy’s helmet that day to Show-and-Tell and he said I looked goofy. All I could think about was what Cousin Jimmy would do…Of course, I got a little too inspired and punched the bully in the belly, which won me a one-way ticket to the detention hall. That was far from fun.  But I guess I was sort of living up to the family name that day. You see, nine out of ten of my ancestors spent time behind bars for standing up for themselves. Take Uncle Charles Stewart Parnell, for instance (I have his family crest in the attic): he got himself arrested for advocating Irish rights under British rule. He was a member of the House of Commons, too, but apparently that didn’t stop the Brits from jailing him.

One of the things that I’ve noticed is that my family seems to be a family of helmets. I mean that if I had to choose an object to best represent my family, I would choose the helmet. First off, our attic is full of them. There’s an old rusty miner’s helmet that I adore. I love slipping it on and pretending that the light on my forehead is fired up, and that I’m not really in the attic but a deep dark cave digging for gold. My dad’s old helmets are there, too: his tarnished army Kevlar and his bulky welding mask.

Helmets are sturdy and true; they were built to last and built to protect. That sounds like my family. We’re a pretty tough people, just like helmets. Besides, my grandma always used to say “You can’t hurt a boy in our family hittin’ ‘em on the head, that’s for sure.”

Helmets are for rough and dangerous work, too, and my family has always been made of hard working folk. But it’s been my observation that folk who know best how to work also know best how to party. Hence the overflowing ‘70s photo albums of my parents–crazy hair, concert tickets, motorcycles and all. (Well, I should clarify: these are pictures of my dad and his brother on the weekends, before he met my mom. After that the pictures turn into Sunday schools and opera houses.)

You might be wondering why I’m telling you all of this. What do you care about my family tree and how much fun I have in the attic? Well, I had to tell you all of this to answer our very first question: how do you characterize yourself? Me, personally, I have thought about that for a really long time, but I’ve never thought about it more than when I’m in the attic with the characters from my family’s past. Do I really want to use them as a guide? Will my future be more predictable if I model my life after the past?

What got me thinking about it was the day I realized that someday my life’s story will be up here. I just couldn’t picture it; my little ol’ life, my little ol’ accomplishments, neatly packed away up here next to all these dignified antiques? How could I ever deserve such an honor? I just can’t see my old basketball jersey up here next to the patchwork quilt that crossed the prairie in a covered wagon. I can’t imagine my pale wooden drumsticks up here in a trunk with my great-grandmother’s piano book, or my TI-89 wrapped up with my uncle’s slide-rule. This is my family’s legacy up here, from the aviator’s goggles to the royal family crest to the gangster photo of Bonnie and Clyde. This is all that I am: this is all in my blood. I may not be right about some of my stories, but I’ve based my entire perspective of my family on my characterizations of the legendary artifacts in this attic.

A hundred years from now, when another little boy ventures up here to play, what legacy will I have? How do I want to characterize myself?

Well, the way I figure it, none of my ancestors did anything for their legacies: they did what they thought was right when they thought it was right to do it. And just look at how amazing they were! The least I can do is follow suit.

How about you?


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