I'm not sure where the boxes came from. Honestly, I think they've always been there. My earliest memories of them are not so much the story of their creation as their discovery.
I remember getting a demerit in kindergarten in the strict private school I attended. The teacher had blamed me for something I hadn't done. She was scowling sternly at me, looking at me with furrowed brows and glaring eyes, trying to convince me I was a bad little girl. I knew if I continued to defend myself, she'd add lying to my crimes. I also knew, at the tender age of four and one-half, that I was right and she was wrong. My instincts, being scarcely beyond babyhood, nudged me to cry. But something else in me, something too complicated to name, whispered No, don't cry. If you cry, she wins. Look here! Put her in the box! So I put her in a box labeled, "People who aren't worth trying to impress." From her place inside that box, she could not hurt my feelings. I made my face impassive. I took my demerit, knowing that I had shown her I no longer cared.
One day, still in kindergarten, a photographer came to take school pictures. I sat on the little stool in my yellow flowered dress and looked at the camera.
"Smile!" said the photographer.
There was something in his tone that I didn't like. He was a stranger, telling me what to do. I felt my stubborn-self prickling inside.
Now he'd done it. I have to smile? Oh, really? I settled my face into the most serious expression I could muster – eyes blank, mouth relaxed into a delicate frown.
The photographer proceeded to empty his whole bag of tricks upon me. Funny voices, stuffed animals, puppets -- the works. A few times I felt myself wavering, my mouth twitching towards a smile.
But then I remembered the boxes.
I traveled down to the place where I kept them, deep in my mind. I found one labeled, "Bad things that have happened to me." I opened it and conjured up a vivid memory of an accident I'd had with the clown swing at the park. A boy had been pushing the empty swing. I had walked within range. The seat of the swing had slashed my cheek, leaving me with a thin scar still visible to that day. I called up the memory of the fear, the pain, my mother's alarm. I thought of the fact that the scar would show on my face in this picture – and that was nothing to smile about. My face relaxed easily back into the frown. The photographer gave up and snapped the picture in defeat.
Weeks later, when I brought the pictures home, my mother said, "These are pretty, honey, but why didn't you smile?"
"Because I didn't want to," I said.
Throughout elementary school, I added to the boxes. I filed away troublesome teachers and unkind classmates. I filed away confusing feelings and nameless fears. Having a place to put such things, out of sight and out of my conscious mind, allowed me to be a happy, often care-free child. That's the way I liked it.
In junior high, my boxes failed me briefly. There was one teacher that I really liked, and I wanted him to like me. I got good grades in his classes, but that wasn't enough to make me stand out. He scarcely paid any attention to me at all. To make matters worse, he frequently spoke fondly of my older sister, who was in both his science class and his home room. His obvious preference for her stung like lemon juice on paper cuts. I tried to shove him into my "People I don't care to impress" box, but he just didn't fit. He left the school after my eighth grade year. I moved him to my "People who don't matter anymore" box and was able to close the lid. I rarely thought of him again.
In high school, things got out of control. There weren't enough boxes to stuff away all the messes I was making of my life, so I shoved myself in a box. I labeled it "This isn't really me," and hid there for two or three years.
I emerged just in time to get married. I found a big box and labeled it, "Things not to let get on my nerves." That one filled up quickly and probably saved my young marriage.
Then, in the seventh month of my first pregnancy, the doctor expressed concerns that there might be something wrong with the baby I was carrying. Tests were inconclusive. They wouldn't know until he was born. I had a choice: spend the next two months in a state of constant tears and panic, or carry this down deep into the vaults and put it in a box. It was at this moment that I found the box that would serve me best for all of my parenting years. I labeled it, "I'll think about this when I have to – and not a minute before."
As it turned out, there was something wrong with my baby. After a major operation and three weeks in intensive care, we were told that he could go home but would need to return to the hospital in three months for more surgery. With a smile on my face, I brought my baby home. I enjoyed those three months as if nothing were wrong, fears of the pending surgery hidden safely away in Tomorrow's box. For the next fourteen years, there was always something waiting in that box – something unseen and unspoken looming in my firstborn's future. Something else to face – but not until I had to. In the meantime I would be happy.
More recently, there was the news of my husband's deployment: one year in the deserts of Kuwait. I didn't take that reality out of the box until the first night he was gone, when an earthquake shook our house and no one answered when I cried out, "What was that?"
Now there's something else in the box. My second son is in the Marine Corps. Very soon, his daily text messages and frequent calls will stop. For seven months, he'll be on the other side of the world in a place no one wants to think about – most of all, me. Soon, but not now. When the moment comes, I'll face it. In the meantime, I'm going to enjoy celebrating an early Christmas with our family complete -- all seven of us safely under one roof.
People who know about my boxes have mixed opinions of them. Some call them coping mechanisms. Others hint that I have denial issues. I am not sure who's more right. Maybe I'm like Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind, chanting her mantra, "I'll think about that… tomorrow." Or maybe I'm following the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount where He said, "Do not worry about tomorrow; for tomorrow will care for itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own." I'd prefer to think the latter, but I can't be completely sure. Sometimes the boxes feel like faith, but other times they feel a lot like pretending.
Sometimes I wonder if the boxes are hereditary. When my youngest daughter was three or four, I was trying to get her to apologize for something she had done. I prompted her with the words, "What do you need to say to your sister?" I had in mind something along the lines of, "I'm sorry. Will you forgive me?" What came out of her mouth was, "Not my problem. Not my fault."
In her laughing blue eyes, I saw reflections of my own. Already, she is protecting herself – sometimes in good ways, sometimes not so good. But perhaps, with guidance, her little boxes will serve her as mine did me. Perhaps they will let her keep smiling right up to the brink of her sorrows and then emerge quickly -- ready to smile again.
Considering the alternatives, I wouldn't have it any other way.