With the metal wardrobe doors closed, I sat in the darkness on the paper mill box where we kept the Lite Brite. I smelled the mothballs hanging in nylons, aged woolen sweaters, and the leather of shoes outgrown and cluttering the wardrobe floor.
I could not have been more than five years old.
Not every child’s bedroom has a wardrobe, but I needed one. There were no closets in my room. Our house was small. Floorboards creaked and crackled with each step, no matter which room, and the whole house would waken from coughs or sneezes in the night.
I had a vent that peered down into the living room in my bedroom floor. I would hold my breath and peek down and listen to my parents speak in low tones about serious things after my brother and I had gone to bed. I learned one Christmas Eve that Santa was just my father in tighty whiteys setting out presents. I watched him in the soft, multi-colored glow of the lights strung around the tree.
My older brother Matt had been fanatical about three books in his life: Charlotte’s Web, Dune, and The Chronicles of Narnia. He owned a set of the entire Narnia series, and he read them through until their covers faded. When he was older—after he’d tried to end his life and spent some months in the mental hospital—he stuck stickers with a selected Bible verse onto the front pages of each of the seven books: II Corinthians 1:2-7. He was 19-years-old at the time. A few years before, at the age of twelve, he had written the date, the year, his name, phone number, hometown (B.G.O.), and the price of the collection into each book in the series. I guess he didn’t want anyone to ever steal them.
When I was 19-years-old, after he decided to exit this life, I inherited those books. Each sticker and scribble suddenly transformed into the story of a boy who struggled with adulthood and chose to escape the day to day burden of existence.
Before all of that, I sat in the pitch black of that closed wardrobe with my chin in my hand. I had not read the Narnia books myself. But, after listening to my brother and watching the 1979 “special television presentation” cartoon, my childish imagination ached with a craving for the magic of Narnia.
I fell in love with Aslan who I recognized as a Jesus-figure from my many hours spent in Sunday school and church. I cried when Aslan allowed himself to be taken captive, his mane shaved and his majesty mocked. But, my heart swelled at his triumphant resurrection and the destruction of the Ice Queen (who I also secretly admired).
What stuck with me most, though, was how that wardrobe, filled with oppressive fur coats, suddenly opened into another world, a world full of crisp snow, talking animals, and kings and queens.
I climbed into my own version, that familiar darkened place, closed the doors, closed my eyes, opened my imagination, opened my mind to the boundless possibilities, stretched out my fingertips to push through to the other side of the world, but I never felt the cooling chill, never felt more than the metal back of the wardrobe, the suffocation of my own dresses and shirts and skirts.
My disappointment felt all too real. And, there I sat, on the Lite Brite box, never less afraid of the dark.
I had reached the limits of my own imagination; it was a stirring that propelled me towards an understanding of time and space and reality that I did not yet know how to fully accept.
On that afternoon, so many years ago, I became aware of the full force of Narrative and storytelling.
That wardrobe, that mystical magical wardrobe in C.S. Lewis’ books, that portal back into a childish belief in limitlessness was like the book itself, to step into, climb into, and escape into.
I had only to open the cover like a door and enter and escape the burden of day to day existence.
And, yet, there are times that this 40-year-old woman looks at closet doors and pines, closes her eyes and craves the taste of snow on her tongue, listens for the babble of talking animals, and loses herself in a world where a boy she once knew disappeared...