The key sits loosely in its lock, unturned, unnecessary. In a neighborhood where children drift from one house to the next as freely as wind-tossed leaves, and women freely borrow milk or sugar from unattended kitchens, no one locks a closet.
In this neighborhood, closets hold no treasure — no jewels, no gold, no banded stacks of bills. They overflow with life’s necessities: shoes tidied into original boxes, purses and shirts, a wardrobe of ties. Now and then, two closets nestle side by side. Hers is obvious: ajumble with boxes of quilting scraps, extra pillows, photographs, and report cards. His, more intentional, arranged with more precision, is a purposeful array of hunting vests, stamp paraphernalia, drafting tools, and gun cases. It’s a perfect marriage of closets.
Dimly lit and cave-like, the closets are mysterious, compelling and sancrosanct. Few children dare enter them without permission, but in these weeks before Christmas, a child might be tempted to cross the bounds of caution by the merest whisper of possibility: “There might be presents…”
It’s a special kind of hide-and-seek, this business of children searching out what parents have tucked under the bed; in the basement; on those out-of-the-way shelves behind the washer. Always, there is fascination with the best hiding-place of all: a parent’s bedroom closet.
If you decide to invade this closet, you’ll find its lock less of an impediment than the bottom hinge; it’s needed oiling for months. It protests with a rising, audible whine when the door’s eased open, but only if you hesitate. Pull it firmly, resolutely, and it remains silent.
More dangerous is the oak floorboard lying halfway between the threshold and the closet. However firmly or lightly you step, it creaks beneath your weight: the sound sharper by far than the scrape of branches on winter-frosted windows. Counting from the threshold, it’s the twenty-eighth board that complains. Any careless or inattentive child who doesn’t watch, count, and count again before stepping across the offending board will hear a voice from the living room below: “Get out of that closet!”
I know this, of course, because I lived for years with that twenty-eighth board: plotting and planning my way across the broad bedroom floor like Meriwether Lewis confronting a cataract. Even today, faint beneath the hum of holiday traffic or the obnoxious repetition of holiday advertising, I hear the murmuring hinge and the floorboard’s muffled creak.
But there is more to that board and those hinges than amusing sorties and nostalgic sounds. There is the sting of regret, a slight, bitter taste of deception, and the chagrin of learning what life may hold for a child who refuses to wait for Christmas.
The year impatience overcame me, the tree already was upright and strung with lights, ready for cranberry garlands and tinfoil bells. The first of the Christmas cookies had been baked and decorated, and the menu planned for Christmas dinner. Still, the house felt empty, bereft of the excitement and anticipation stirred by the sight of gifts.
Looking around, I found no bits of wrapping paper in the trash, no extra Scotch tape or out-of-place scissors. Listening, I heard no tell-tale car door slamming after I’d been sent to bed. I wasn’t precisely worried, but recent exposure to Santa rumors had left me cautious, nervous about my best friend’s contention that kids who don’t believe in Santa don’t get any gifts at all. Eventually, I thought, I’d need to check things out.
A week later, our family was invited to a neighbor’s open house, and my mother allowed me the choice of coming along or staying home. Sensing opportunity, I choose to stay home, muttering vague justifications about needing to work on school projects. From an upstairs window, I watched them leave, cross the yard, and disappear into our neighbor’s home.
With my parents safely occupied, I sprinted out of my bedroom and into their room. Heedless of the squeaking floor or hinges, I opened the door to my dad’s closet. The thin, lambent sunlight of late afternoon barely lit its contents. When I pulled the chain hanging from a single, overhead bulb, the sudden explosion of light confirmed my worst fear: nothing was out of place. Half-heartedly, I pushed back some shirts, and peered at the familiar shoe boxes. No packages huddled in the gloom, no paper or ribbon hinted at Christmas. Perplexed, I shut the door.
Convinced that any gifts would have been secreted in my father’s closet, I barely had glanced into my mother’s. Even when I stepped inside the already-opened door and turned on the light, I nearly missed the glint of candy cane-striped foil paper. Lifting up what appeared to be a hastily tossed heap of mending, I gasped. A pile of boxes was waiting, neatly wrapped and ready for bows. Each carried a tag, and of the few that I could see, most carried my name.
It would be years before I learned the phrase, “crime of opportunity,” but on that day I had opportunity, and I fell easily into crime.
Carefully, cautiously, neither moving the mending nor unstacking the boxes, I lifted the clear tape from the neat, vee’d fold of paper on one end of a box. The wrapping paper, heavy, smooth, and slick to the touch, remained intact. The tape peeled up perfectly, the sharp, crisp folds of paper popped open easily, and I discovered the contents by reading the end of the box.
Today, I have no memory of the box’s contents. I remember only my sudden sense of guilt, my dread of being discovered, and the disappointment I experienced when the time came to unwrap the package on Christmas morning. Guilt, disappointment, and dread would have been punishment enough for such a crime, but worse by far was my first, unhappy taste of dishonesty’s primary consequence: having to pretend everything was right when, in fact, everything was wrong.
My unwillingness to wait, born of an overwhelming desire for immediate gratification and an inability to trust that there would be gifts, had left me unable to celebrate. I wished only for Christmas to end. It was a terrible day, and a mistake I never repeated.
Today, while merchandisers focus on the shopping season, and the media hype a party season, a season of excess and inevitable disappointment, Advent continues to extend a gracious invitation: an invitation to delay gratification, and learn a deeper patience.
A season of silence and shadows, Advent whispers an uncomfortable truth: waiting is the condition of our lives. From birth to death, from our coming in to our going out of this amazing, implausible world, we live our lives in a state of perpetual waiting.
We wait for arguments to be resolved and peace to be restored; for bitterness to ebb and pain to flow away. Season after season we await the budding of the spring, and the gathering of the harvest; the coming of the storm and the clearing of the sky. Sleepless after midnight, we wait for time itself to pass until the coming of the dawn. Exhausted by the day, we wait for the blessing of darkness, and the restorative powers of sleep.
Always, we wait for laughter; for love; and for the simple, unexpected gifts of life.
Always, there is a choice, and always, there are consequences. Like over-eager children before a pile of gifts, we are free to rush the season — to rush our lives — and demand our satisfactions now, even though our willingness to slip away a ribbon, lift a bit of tape, and unfold a sheet of love-creased paper may destroy our joy.
In short, learning how to wait nurtures and deepens our humanity. From a certain perspective, waiting itself is the gift of Advent, the mysterious and compelling experience that arrives hand in hand with the merest whisper of possibility: “There might be presents…”