Kristan Hoffman - Writing Dreams Into Reality
Wed Mar 26 2014

Unexpected encounters with grief

1.

We’re standing in the front atrium of our high school, forty or so girls in rows of ten. We’re all in matching warm-up clothes, and there’s a boom box up front, blaring hip-hop music. We’re rehearsing for our halftime dance number.

Suddenly our coach comes hurrying down the hall. She pulls the team captain aside and speaks quietly into the girl’s ear. The girl crumples. Without a word of explanation, she walks away, supported by the arms of our coach. Practice pauses while the other team leaders figure out what to do.

Later we learn that the captain’s father has been in poor health for a long time. She’s only a few months away from graduation, but they don’t think he’ll make it. Eighteen years old and facing life without her dad.

2.

September 11th starts as television broadcasts from a faraway city. Then it becomes rumors whispered in the hallway between classes. Buildings falling, dust clouds flooding the streets, a plane crashing into a field.

I’m in third period calculus when a front office aide interrupts the lecture and hands a note to our teacher. He reads it, then asks the pretty blonde girl two rows in front of me to gather her things and go with the aide. Terror and tears gather in her eyes as she leaves the room.

Later we learn that her brother worked in the Twin Towers. That’s all we ever hear.

3.

It’s the summer after my freshman year of college, and I’m getting ready to go to my parents’ office. The bathroom radio plays Top 40 hits while I brush my teeth, wash my face, and get dressed. Through the closed door, the phone rings, but I know my dad will get it.

He knocks a few minutes later. I open the door and find him braced against the frame, his head buried into the crook of his arm. My brows furrow, but even then I’m not alarmed. Just confused.

Later, at my uncle’s funeral, I will think about that moment over and over. I will hear my dad’s voice, calm but thick, as he tells me that his brother is dead. I will think about how we are never really ready for something like that. Never expecting to lose someone that we love.

But I will also remember the strength that my dad showed in the moments after. He grieved, but he did not let grief shut him down. He cried, but he did not drown. He was changed, but not diminished.

I don’t know if I can be that strong that quickly. But I’m glad to have a model for it in my life.

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Wed Mar 5 2014

Clothes for an empress

1.

I duck into a circular rack of clothing, a giddy smile on my face. Soon Mommy will notice that I am not by her side. She will, at least for a moment, panic. She will think that I have wandered off and gotten lost, or maybe even been kidnapped.

But then Mommy will come to her senses, calm down, and search for me. She will call my name in a sing-song voice and bend down to peek under the clothes.

I pick up my feet and tuck them onto the bars. Now I am invisible. I am a monkey nestled into a tree. I am a chameleon blending into my surroundings.

Still, I know somehow Mommy will find me, and I will shriek with glee. Then we will go to the next store and play again. This is my favorite game.

2.

My mom’s closet is a treasure trove. Sometimes when I am home alone, I go inside and rifle through all the sweaters and dresses and shoes. There are jackets with shoulder pads from when she worked in an office. There is a thick winter coat from when she went to school in Philadelphia. There are even skirts and shorts from when she still lived in Taiwan.

My all-time favorite thing in my mom’s closet is her bright red qi pao. Long and silky, embroidered all over with blossoms, fastened from ribcage to collar with delicate butterfly clasps. It is the most beautiful, regal thing I have ever seen. A Chinese princess dress. And it belongs to my mother.

The first time I put it on, I am too small in every way. A few years later, I try again, but I am still not quite there. Finally, in high school, the hem falls to my ankle as it should — but the sleeves and chest are tight, and the stiff high collar won’t even close around my neck.

Wistfully I realize that I have outgrown my mother. I will never fit her qi pao.

3.

In my own closet, there are a number of items I should probably get rid. Star Trek t-shirts, all XL, because as a kid I hid my body. My dance team uniform, stiff and cliché, but a reminder of the joy you can find in stepping outside your comfort zone. And way in the back, two tiny dresses that I loved in pre-school, one handmade by my best friend’s mother, the other frilled and polka-dotted, affectionately dubbed the Blueberry Dress.

I will never wear any of these things again, but each one tells a story about who I have been. About who I am. And maybe someday I will have a daughter who hides between hangers or presses her nose into the mothball scent. Maybe she will want to read my life in my clothes or try them on for herself. Maybe she will be fascinated by that “otherness” in me and want desperately to connect to the “otherness” within herself.

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Wed Feb 5 2014

The cold never bothered me anyway

1.

My first memory of snow is fleeting. I was just four years old when my parents bundled me up and hurried me out the front door of our townhouse. The three of us stood in the courtyard under a gray-blue sky, marveling at the soft white magic falling all around. My mom had on her fur coat. I’m not sure I even owned gloves. For a little kid growing up in Houston, snow was as mythical as unicorns, and that day the flurries only lasted for a few minutes. But it was enough for my dad to help me make a tiny snowman, four inches tall.

When we went back inside, I sat by the window and watched the snowman melt. Though I was sorry to see him go, I was too amazed by the whole experience to truly feel sad. Snow was real and I had seen it. Anything was possible now.

2.

Thirteen years later, I was a freshman in college, feeling happy, free, confused, and lonely at the same time. (Thank you for the great lyric, Taylor Swift.) Those first few months, I spent a lot of time in my room, chatting online with friends who were hundreds of miles away, and struggling with school work for the first time in my life.

One night, early in December, I was looking out my window when snow began to fall. And I wasn’t the only one who noticed. Voices sounded down the hallways, growing louder with excitement. One of the boys peered into my room and invited me to join a small group going outside. Together we ran down five flights of stairs, too excited to wait for the elevator, and burst out of the dorm into the frigid air.

We built a snowman, four feet tall instead of four inches. We had a snowball fight. We made snow angels, which I had never done before. We even tried sledding down a small hill, sitting atop flattened cardboard boxes from the recycling bin. And when we were done acting like kids, we trudged back upstairs, dripping and exhausted, and we microwaved water for ramen and hot chocolate, and we opened our textbooks with a renewed sense of purpose.

3.

For a few weeks now, the Midwest has been besieged by extremely cold temperatures, thick snowfall, and treacherous road conditions. Schools have been delayed and canceled so often that the kids are probably going to have to make up an entire week. My neighbors groggily dig their cars out every morning, sometimes taking ten minutes or more.

But the truth is, as long as people stay safe, I don’t mind this weather. I love the way the world looks blanketed in white.  I love curling up on the couch to work, and Riley pressing his soft warm body against mine. I love the hush, the smell, the glow.

Today, Riley and I walked across a field that had been completely covered by a thick layer of snow, with a thin layer of ice on top. My boots crunched through, making a faint trail along the edge of the woods. But Riley was apparently light enough that he didn’t break the ice. Instead, his paws scurried across the surface as he ran ahead and turned back, ran ahead and turned back. I smiled at the swirls of snow dancing in his wake.

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Mon Jan 13 2014

An incomplete history of places I’ve called home

This post was inspired by Shari’s “Home Sweet Home.”

1.

A simple brick townhouse at the end of the row. Two stories tall, with a small courtyard and a single-car garage. We had a soft blue sofa against one wall, and a baby grand piano by the window. We kept our pet rabbit in a cage in the kitchen.

I remember sitting in the back of my dad’s study while he worked, reading the 1983 Farmer’s Almanac and declaring Thomas Jefferson my favorite president. I remember the big vanity in my parents’ bedroom where my mom would brush my hair, and I would point out lumps in my ponytail in the mirror. I remember trying to slide down the stairs on my stomach and getting rug burn. I remember looking out my bedroom window and imagining I could fly.

2.

A one-story “ranch” in the back corner of a tree-lined, U-shaped street. (But we don’t call them ranches in Texas, because that term means something else here.) The owner before us was a middle-aged playboy who bricked over the yard so he wouldn’t have to mow. There’s a fireplace in the center of the house, allowing both sides of the living room to enjoy the warmth and the flickering light.

I remember climbing up to the split-level library and sliding the bookcase back to reveal a secret passage to the attic. I remember having a sleepover with three girl friends in middle school, all of us splayed out on the rug underneath the dining table, talking into the late hours of the night. I remember my first boyfriend knocking on my bedroom window, unable to climb in because it had been painted shut. I remember sitting on the roof for hours, singing made-up love songs and writing stories in my journal under the moonlight.

3.

A two-bed, two-bath unit in a condo complex. All the doorknobs, cabinets, and light fixtures are straight out of a builder’s catalog — plain and old-fashioned, but ours. Big sliding glass doors look out over a woody hillside, where deer and squirrels like to pass by. Art adorns every wall, a growing museum of our world travels.

I remember taking couch cushions into the kitchen so I could sleep by Riley’s crate on his first night at home. I remember the excitement of putting our new bed frame together — only to find that we had left a crucial piece back at IKEA. I remember hosting a dinner party for nine of our friends, tables and chairs crammed into whatever space we could find, the air warming with the scent of pheasant and squash, our ears swelling with the sound of voices and laughter.

.

Over the years I’ve learned: home is just a word, until you fill it with memories.

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Fri Mar 30 2012

Scenes from my aunt’s house

One tree in the front yard, or two? Wood siding, or brick? Have I ever even set foot in the backyard?

These questions roll through my mind during the drive to Dallas. It’s been over 10 years since I last visited my aunt’s house, but 4 short hours later, here we are. The front walk is like memory lane, leading me to answers I didn’t realize I had forgotten.

I’m 7 years old, sitting at the dining table, legs tucked underneath me. I hold out one finger, my body tensed in fear of being bitten. Inside a brass cage, yellow and blue feathers rustle, punctuated by twin chirps. My aunt opens a little door and slips her hand in. Next thing I know, tiny claws are dancing across my pointer finger. I relax and smile.

I’m 9 years old, playing Hearts on my laptop. My cousin, older and wiser, leans over and shoulders me out of the way. “Have you heard of an mp3?” he asks. As I shake my head, he is already typing and clicking and downloading a few things from his server at MIT. “It’s the future of music,” he assures me. Soon we are listening to some song called “Sweetest Thing” by some band called U2 on some program called Winamp. Impressed, I nod to the beat and try to sing along with the chorus.

I’m 10 years old, knocking tentatively on my cousin’s bedroom door. He doesn’t say to come in, but he doesn’t say to go away either. I close the door softly behind me. He’s sitting on the bed, face red with anger, eyes wet with tears. I sit down on the floor in front of him, but he just keeps staring hard at the opposite wall.

After several minutes of silence, I ask if he wants to play Connect Four. He still doesn’t say anything, but he scoots off the bed and slides the board game out. We’re dropping our red and black checkers into place when his father comes in to apologize. But he never actually says he’s sorry. He just holds his arms out and waits. They hug silently, my cousin’s small body stiff, my uncle’s hand heavy on his back.

I’m 12 years old, up late for no real reason. While the rest of the house sleeps peacefully, my typing fills the darkness. A childhood friend is teasing me over chat, but I feel something else coming. Something exciting and frightening.

Oh god, there it is. But what do I do now? What do I do with those three little words? I want them — of course I want them — but not from him, not right now.

Joy, regret, and panic churn inside me. With tears in my eyes, I type, “I’m sorry.” I hit send. I sign off.

I don’t sleep that night.

I’m 26 years old, sharing a mattress with my mother. In the morning we wake to soft light filtering in through the windows. Still half-asleep, we stay in bed, lying on our backs and talking. Catching up, sharing stories.

Memories layer one on top of the other, new on top of old, hers on top of mine. It’s been over 10 years since I last visited my aunt’s house, but pieces of me linger, hanging on the walls next to the photographs. I collect them now, questions and answers no longer forgotten.

One tree. Brick. Still not sure.

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