The wolf was big, likely about as tall as I was at the time, with fur like a wire brush and eyes as flat and dead as the black licorice nibs my grandmother loved, but I hated. It lurked like a recurring nightmare, but I understood that the wolf was only a gatekeeper and would remain concealed indefinitely, so long as nothing should arouse it. However, at certain times of the year its presence was felt like the terrible torment of an old nursery rhyme: Teeth like razors, claws like knives, eyes like a devil, full of hate and surprise.
This particular wolf was family legend, and, as the story went, he lived in a closet in the back of my grandparents' attic, in a space only my grandmother could enter because she was the one who could tame him.
Of course, even as children we were not stupid. We understood that this was where she kept the Christmas gifts.
My grandmother was a very proper, precise woman who planned our holidays down to the smallest detail: the fanning of orange slices on holly-patterned serving plates, the setting of the dinner table days in advance with a full compliment of silverware we weren't quite sure what to do with. She had a particular utensil for every conceivable use, from pickle forks to grapefruit spoons and fruit forks to fish knives. We have a small family: only five of us spanning three generations, but nevertheless she began preparing for Christmas in July, making lists, poring over catalogs, and arranging menus. She finished shopping and started wrapping by Labor Day, drawing from her enormous stock of wrapping paper and bows which she saved year after year, tracking them down as we opened our gifts, trumpeting the family mantra: "Save the bow!"
If the wolf had an allure, it was that he seemed to make my grandmother look a little bit wild, a little bit not quite herself. Even though the wolf wasn't so much a threat as a ritual, it changed her demeanor. If it were possible to see my grandmother tussled in any way, it was here, when she confronted the wolf.
Very often I spent entire days playing in the attic right outside the wolf closet. I had a set of puppets and a little stage and I enjoyed playing in the small, private space no one else ever entered, unless my grandmother had to access the wolf closet. Then, when my grandmother had to go in to "feed" the wolf, she would whoop and yell, "Behave!" and "Get down!" and I would cover my head and hide my eyes. Once she was inside, there were often strange scratching and banging noises as the wolf got really riled up. Finally, after some time, my grandmother would emerge, brushing off her sleeves and exclaiming, "Awful beast! Just awful!" Then she would leave me to what I was doing.
It should be noted at this point that I was not the bravest of children. Even though I was not afraid of the wolf, I would never, ever have dared to venture inside. Perhaps this was a byproduct of my shyness, although to say that I was shy would be an understatement—in my early years I rarely spoke to anyone outside my immediate family, even under duress. If I had a true fear it wasn't of an imaginary wolf, it was of everyone else. The attic space was a retreat from the world, a place where I could tell stories and make up characters who were me but not me, and my proximity to the wolf had little to do with anything other than my desire to be alone, to think, and to play.
Over the years my mother took me to various doctors and psychiatrists who tried to get to the root of my extreme shyness, which, I believe, was largely chalked up to miscellaneous childhood anxiety. It's impossible to know this, however, as I was just as frightened of the doctors as anyone else and never asked. Quite frankly, I'm not sure a diagnosis matters all that much. Attaching a name to the intense fear that surrounded even asking a teacher to use the restroom or a bus driver if I was on the correct bus, is not, in my estimation, all that productive. However, I will say this: spending my time in the attic during those years playacting puppet stories would eventually become the foundation for my ability to role play myself out of silence. It was an important time and—wolf or no wolf—this became my essence, my weapon against the world.
However, this feels like a digression, as this is a story about my grandmother.
No one lived full time in my grandparents' house with the wolf closet. My grandparents' primary residence was an apartment in New York City near my grandfather's work. My brother and I lived with our mother in Maryland. The "country" house, as we called it, was for weekends and holidays, so my brother and I were only there when we were out of school. City life was both a blessing and a curse for my grandmother, who had grown up in rural New Brunswick, Canada, and, I am told, had trouble adjusting to her new environment as a young wife. She was, to some degree, like me: very shy, almost reclusive at times, and the social demands of the city and my grandfather's career were always a bit much for her, much like school for me was a terrifying immersion in a sea of people I couldn't seem to respond to on even a rudimentary level. For all of us, my grandparents' "country" house was a welcome escape from the realities of life where we could control the frightening things, and laugh about them from a distance.
We all aged, of course. I continued to be nearly silent for much of my school years, but fortunately my few academic strengths were enough to balance my clear deficiencies and I managed to be admitted to a small liberal arts college in Ohio. College marked the beginning of my adulthood and the early days of learning how to adopt a "puppet" character and act my way out of the silence that had defined me for so many years. These were good years for me, although in some ways I had become the wolf, the one who stayed apart from my family. It can be said that when I finally came out of my shell, I did so with a vengeance, perhaps to protect my newfound voice and try to dispel the lingering sense that it was all an act that could be revealed simply by opening the right door. Even though I'm certain that my family loved me, there were times when I was not well liked. I smoked a lot of cigarettes, spent a lot of time on highways heading somewhere else, and did a fair amount of growling.
During these years, my grandparents stopped going to their "country" house, finding it easier to stay in the city or retreat to warmer climates for periods of time. For many of these years my grandparents were angry with me that I was not available for vacations and holidays. They had always had time for me, but now, in their old age, I had little time for them, or so it seemed. I graduated from college and I got a job. I worked, I lived, and I eventually even married and had a child, all while pretending that nothing was hidden. I pretended that I was the person I had invented for myself, not the person that my family remembered sitting alone outside the wolf closet. The child who never once was bold enough to try to open the door.
A year after my first child was born, my grandfather passed away. He didn't see his first great grandchild until she was five months old, despite the fact that we lived in the same city. Indeed, I rarely saw my grandparents in those days, for reasons I didn't question or examine. For years our visits had been restricted to formal dinners at very particular restaurants a few times a year. Typically, they would cancel our dinner two or three times before they could actually make it. I thought this was a side effect of how distant we had become during my 20s and shrugged it off as just an indication of their particular quirks. They did their thing and I did mine. We were of different worlds, and, to some degree, that was fine with me.
My grandfather's death was a shock both in its unexpectedness and its eventual revelation of the wolf that lived in their closet, still howling for attention. However, it was my grandfather who kept the door closed, and the rest of us who continued to sit outside, presuming that it was all some kind of game. We knew that my grandmother's physical condition had deteriorated; she had had numerous falls and injuries, making getting around difficult. We also knew that my grandmother had always had reclusive tendencies, but these were things that didn't necessarily apply to her family. What we didn't know was the lengths that my grandfather had gone, on his own, to hide her increasingly worsening dementia. We didn't know the severity of her manic episodes, her violence, her paranoia. We didn't know how hard it was to care for her on a daily basis.
My grandparents had money—they were not poor. Help, from either family or hired nurses, was available at a moment's notice, but my grandfather was too proud to ask. He thought she was dying and if he could see her through this last, terrible stretch of life he would be able to preserve her dignity to the end.
But he needed a pacemaker that he never got. It was fairly clear, afterward, that he hadn't been able to figure out how he would leave her long enough to have the procedure. He had also reached out to nurses who had never seen her. Too late, he was trying to put the pieces of her care in place.
The question of how much we knew is much like the question of the wolf. Reality and family myth are blurred to the point that it isn't so much a question of knowledge as an issue of habit. Challenging my grandparents on anything from off-limit closets to the details of their health was simply not our way. And, if we did, we challenged them by sitting too close to the closet, not by opening the door. Our behavior was still much like the childish play-along that defined those early years. Consumed with our own problems and behaviors, we used family tradition to hide the ugly realities that were playing out in front of us. Come to think of it, even in the later years when we would laugh about the wolf, no one ever came out and owned that it was a story; we all simply came to an understanding that we were way beyond having to articulate reality. Of course there was never a wolf locked in the attic closet—don't be ridiculous. Except it wasn't so. The wolf was real and the things hidden inside my grandmother's mind were dangerous, even lethal.
The shocking thing about metaphors is that they never work in the moment, only in hindsight.
After my grandfather's death, it was decided that their "country" house would finally be sold. I hadn't seen the house in over fifteen years when my mother and I arrived to pack up the furniture. Even after all that time, I could still see Christmas everywhere: my imagination wound ivy around the banisters, saw the tree glowing in the bay window, and heard the quiet carols coming from the radio in the den. Solemnly, my mother and I worked our way through the house, boxing up and cleaning out my grandparents' dated and neglected belongings, until I found myself in the attic, where my puppets and their stage still sat among the old luggage and boxes of wallpaper remnants.
Strangely (or perhaps not), I was more fearful of the attic as an adult than as a kid. A parent now and pregnant with my second child, the dirt, dust, and jagged nails leapt out as potential threats, never mind the mice and spiders that might have been hiding in the dark, unfinished crevices. All the way in the back was the wolf closet, its door still closed. It was strange to stand before it; the door itself didn't seem different or more menacing than I remembered. After all, it was just a closet. I opened the door—it was not now, nor had it ever been locked—and stepped into the interior for the first time.
It was smaller than I imagined but orderly, with shelves she had used to stash our Christmas gifts on one side and a set of shallow drawers on the other. There were a few small items still sitting on the shelves, things my grandmother had saved for emergency gifts—a set of coasters with pictures of birds, a cosmetics bag, a lipstick case, a light scarf. These too bore the sheen of time and a different age, things once fashionable but now irrelevant, the tangible detritus of a proper woman thinking ahead and preparing herself for the surprising necessities of life. With her husband's death, that woman had finally relinquished her grip on the present day and tumbled backward into the disjointed memories of her own childhood, a time long before the appearance of the faded relics now in my hands. Her memories belonged to places largely eradicated by the intervening generations, and they dismantled her just as slowly and systematically as we had dismantled them.
There is a certain dementia inherent in memory—dust conforms to time better than the mind—and holding those objects clarified to some degree that all memory is a secret collection of small items, some to be shared, some to be given as gifts, others to be hoarded carefully and stored in secret.
Before I left to get a box to pack what was left of the wolf closet, I noticed a large stack of flat dress boxes along the opposite wall. They were big—of a size you rarely see anymore—and as I lifted the dusty lid from the box on top, I was shocked to see color: an explosion of blues in every shade from powder to turquoise to navy, like a tropical ocean. In other boxes, I found reds from blush to crimson, greens from lime to spruce, and golds both shiny and stately. These were her gift bows in all the colors of the rainbow, safely protected from dust and debris, a generation's worth of invisible fingerprints waiting ever so patiently for the next round of gifts.