“doorknobs” (from memoir “whitegirrrl”) short chapter

You chose the house because of the doorknobs.  That’s what you think later, in the month of December in the year where there isn’t any Santa, or any firewood, or any dreams, or any Christmas at all left.  Your house.  The little Craftsman that you wanted so badly once when you thought that being a wife and mother was going to be what you had in store for you.  He’d promised it, with that ring.  Or so it seemed.

It’s later that you understand he never meant a word he said.  It takes you years to figure out that you come last in his eyes.  The thought of that horrifies if you think too long about it and so you don’t.  There were years when it wasn’t so cold.  Maybe there were years that you tried to convince yourself it wasn’t.

“Look, I found this for you,” your mother says.  It’s a bronze door knocker with a Roman face.

“Oh Mom,” you say.

“I’m going to put it here.”

It’s perfect for the little door in the kitchen.  You’re baking Christmas cookies.  All kinds of Christmas cookies, for everyone.  Little plates full.  It’s expected of you because that is what nice white girls do.  You are expected to take care of your parents and his parents and friends and even co-workers. It’s ritualistic in a world without rituals.  But you have always loved Santa.  Your mother taught you how to be him and how to light up other people’s faces.  Even in her worst years, she managed to pull Christmas off.

It’s in your childhood that she makes you give your favorite doll to a little girl who has nothing, as a lesson.

White girls are taught not to ask for things for themselves.

White girls are taught to smile pleasantly and bear up under the circumstances, no matter the cost.  This is how we live untruths, isn’t it?

You are holding your little doll in your arms and it is your favorite doll in all of the world.  Because your grandmother had helped you paste Blue Chip Stamps into books until you had enough of them to get it.  You’re seven at the pine kitchen table and it is the cocktail hour.  Your grandfather is fixing drinks for himself and your grandmother before you go out for  dinner, and you are pasting away.  The stamps clutter the table, and the Lazy Susan that spins round and round.

“How many books do you think you have there, Honeybunch?”

You smile at him because there are five, and two more to be filled, and this is a project that has taken two summers, already.

It’s not as if you need more dolls, except, this is a lesson about how to save up for something on your own.

He is pouring a tiny Crème de menthe for your grandmother.  She sips it delicately in one of her special glasses from France.  On rainy days she explains what each glass is for.  There are shapes for every drink on earth, and tiny cups and saucers, and collections of lace tablecloths, and napkins to be folded, and silver things that need to be polished and these are the sorts of things she teaches you about being a girl as the raindrops fall gently against the windows, keeping time.

It takes two summers until you get to go to the store and choose the doll.  You’re so proud of it.  It’s the very first thing you have gotten on your own.  It’s tiny with blonde hair and little Mary Janes like yours, and a miniature plaid pocketbook.  You carry it everywhere with you.

It’s only a few weeks until Christmas, that year.

White girls are taught to be kind.

It’s out of that kindness that you say nothing as she takes the doll from your arms and gives it to Dena’s little girl.

“She has nothing,” your mother says.  “Just think of all your toys.”

And you look at Dena’s house in Pasadena and it’s true.

White girls are taught to suppress any tears.

No one ever asks about the little doll and what happened.  Your grandparents never even notice.

Years later you will meet hundreds of children like Dena’s.  You will meet children who have never had a doorknob, or a little bedroom, or the pleasure of a mother making Christmas cookies.

“There are givers and takers in this life,” your mother says.

“I’ve always been a giver.”

You learn from her what it means to be Santa, that day.  For the rest of your life you will try and be like Santa, whenever you can, for people that have less.

White girls learn not to ask.

What has been taken from you becomes very clear after years as you look at the doorknobs of the house in the Christmas of your discontent and longing.  You realize that your ancestors would agree, now.  They would say, “It is time for you to think of yourself.”

As you look around the house there are reminders of them, everywhere.  The littlest things you kept.  The Roman door knocker.  The velvet couch.  The Chinese vases.

“It’ll be like you never lived there,” you hear your mother whisper.  “That’s how I always felt, after a move.”

“It’s yes or no in this life,” she says.

All of a sudden all her phrases come back to you, like a lion’s roar from someplace far beyond or over a great rainbow where she has gone.  Her words are as clear as bells the morning you look at the door knocker, remembering.  And at your doorknobs.

There is a fog hanging high over the city when you make your decision.  The morning is so cold you feel like you will never ever be warm again, but the coldness has descended into your heart and bones, for this is the year that there won’t even be Christmas.  He’s taken that too.

For some reason, the taking of Christmas is the final straw.  Like a door that slams in your face, or a punch that was a low blow because he knows how much you love it.

“It could be worse,” he says.

Nothing could be worse, you think.  Nothing.

And all of a sudden you are making a plan again only this time you really mean it.

It’s a matter of turning a doorknob, and pushing.


“doorknobs” — copyright 2010 — by Valentine Bonnaire — all rights reserved.

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