Thursday, September 2, 2010

Opening My Pandora's Box for Christmas - David Nugent

Opening my Pandora’s box for Christmas
By David Nugent
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 23:48:00 12/13/2008

Filed Under: Lifestyle & Leisure
IT is nearly the peak of the Christmas season and you’re probably thinking about all you’d want to thank this year. As for me, I have something to be tremendously thankful for. And it starts with a box.

I have always liked to collect boxes, starting when I was a child, when I’d put trinkets, baseball cards, marbles, odd mementos, in discarded candy or cookie tins. Nowadays my boxes are altogether different—crafted from fine wood, marble, porcelain and other precious materials, and exquisite to the eye.

They’re found on almost every surface of my little house—on countertops, coffee tables, sideboards, shelves. There are boxes in bedrooms and bathrooms, and boxes inside larger boxes that rest inside even larger ones.

But no matter how elaborate the box, it is at its simplest, just a box—open one up, and find something inside.


Six months ago, in this newspaper, I decided to open the most complex box I owned, one I’d convinced myself had long been forgotten. Lying forlorn in some interior cavity of my soul was a box that contained years of blocked memories and emotions, of a life I had been determined to run away from.

It was a box I feared confronting—painful memories of an often violently abusive father and an almost unnaturally detached and deluded mother. It was a Pandora’s box of the soul, a place dark and deep and where I had barely ventured into these past 20 years.

But life’s trajectory forced me to reach down and open it. The decision to write about it was disconcerting to those close and dear to me. They implored me not to go public. Why dredge up these bad memories for everyone to see?

Breaking the cycle

Sometime in my 20s, one lunch with my mother, I brought up our seemingly demented upbringing. My mother, herself recently and finally divorced from my father, cut me off: “It wasn’t that bad.” I let it go at that time.

Pandora’s box had been kept closed, but at a very steep price. Over the past 20 years, I had contrived to live my life in a series of emotional boxes. By locking so much of my own history away, I had also locked a good part of myself away.

In succeeding years, despite my relatively successful profession, my life’s trajectory had been stunted because I had never freed myself from the pain and sorrow of early years. By not confronting my family’s story, I had never truly been able to move beyond it.

A jerk

Opening that box empowered me to confront, once and for all, an adult I didn’t like all that much, or respect. For while I had a great job, so-called great friends and the semblance of a great life, it was pretty much just a stage set for a play I really didn’t want to watch. I had become a jerk.

I had become the slick and suave product of what I had long preached not to become to my clients, bosses, coworkers, friends—and that is, believe your own PR.

There’s a whole lot of jerks in this world, and I was handed my membership card at a rather young age. I made the mistake of believing that hubris and projection could cover a poorly made box, that a Gucci suit, vacation in St. Barts or Bali, the right bon mot, or the proper recitation of the menu of the six-star restaurant of the moment, could represent the complete person. I was a box with expensive gilding, yet once opened it was empty.

Now, because I’ve been able to think openly about those two persons who had hurt me, for the first time I’ve started to understand them. I’ve realized that the negative, two-dimension portrait I had painted of my parents wasn’t necessarily a full picture of who they were.

Magical moments

For 20 years I’ve not spoken to my father except for a couple of barely uttered sentences, really forgettable.

At the celebratory lunch after I delivered a rousing speech in my high school graduation, my father said that the violence he had been inflicting on me was a key ingredient to my academic success. Then and there I decided to lock all memories of him away.

But I had become an angry person—angry at the world, at myself for being the coward who was too terrified to open his box.

And when I did open that box, it brought a flood of memories, many bad, others not so bad, and some actually quite magical. The key to that has been recalling the days that were not so dark. My sister and I talk about them all the time now.

There were, indeed, moments that were purely magic. Such as that hot summer day when my mother preoccupied with herself and a father away on business led me and my sister to build a clubhouse (really a shack) of old boards next to our house in San Diego.

Or when I adopted a stray spotted dog and shared a week of bliss with it until Spot ran back home. Or when I constructed my own model of Ancient Egypt, with a blue construction-paper Nile and brown cardboard pyramids, stretching across the first floor of a concrete spider-house on Subic hills—which my sister promptly invaded with a surprise population of Barbie dolls.


Perhaps most critical to my own soul has been the reawakening of memories of magic concerning my father—who probably, desperately did not want to abuse his only son. But he was trapped in his own box, with no wherewithal to escape it.

And maybe because he let himself down again and again, that could be why he also went to the other extreme of pampering, spoiling and ensuring that his son saw and experienced some things of beauty and happiness. Because he did.


Finally, 20 years and six months after I stopped speaking to him, I can remember walking with him through the Huntington Gardens and Museum in Pasadena, Ca., where Gainsborough’s “Blue Boy” hung behind its velvet-rope splendor and a brass sign indicated: “Do not touch.”

I remember staring at that painting, and telling my father I did, indeed, want to touch it. He slightly leaned toward me, squeezed my shoulder ever so gently, smiled, and softly said: “Go ahead, son.”

Yes, my father and mother had deeply hurt me, and I believed they had damaged my soul beyond repair. But I’ve had a more powerful realization: rejecting my parents for so many years meant I had rejected myself in so many ways. It meant every relationship I had since childhood was incomplete and could never succeed because I had not even reconciled with myself, or with the couple who brought me into this world.

I’m finally able to look at my parents not as I had before: super-persons on pedestals who, inevitably, fell from their perch and broke my heart. Because they were much more than that, and less.

My parents were just a man and a woman carrying pains and histories they probably wanted to forget but could not. Confronting who they were and what they did, I’ve been able to forgive and love them again.

Because love—that indefinable thing—was also what drew a man, who didn’t like European paintings, to spend a sunny afternoon with a boy who was just discovering that he did. For that, I thank that man a thousand times over.

Whole spirit

For years I had simply believed my father to be dead, but I’ve come to the point where I hope it isn’t too late to revive him and see what person he has become. I will call my father soon, and as painful as it may be in the beginning, I have a gut feeling that over time, the pain won’t last.

I hope one day the old man could take me fishing again, as he did so many times when I was a boy, and we’d sit by the water, reels in hand, sitting often in silence but happily, whether we’d get the catch of the day or not.

The past few months have enabled me to renew my relationship with my mother, whom I call more often and with whom the jokes are easier, the banter flowing. And my sister, whom I had left to deal with my parents when I hurriedly left for college, has renewed her relationship with me as well.

As we approach Christmas Day, I’ve really gone to town with the whole spirit. There are two trees in my little house, one downstairs, a live Douglas Fir from the States; and upstairs, a tall plastic one made in China, covered with ornaments made in the Philippines. There are crazy lights all over the place.

My loved ones and friends who come over just can’t believe the amount of work my helpers and I have done to create such an oddly exuberant monument to the holidays.

It’s really quite simple. I have so much to be thankful for: a grandmother whose memory shines bright every day; parents I truly love; and the rebuilding of relationships I thought had been fractured forever.

I guess that’s why this December I’m humming more Christmas tunes than usual, or trying to find one more space to put up one more light. Because all that I’ve been so fortunate to receive this year, this bounty of the heart, wouldn’t have been possible unless somebody or some thing up there decided it was time for me to finally learn my lesson.

Opening Pandora’s box has given me peace.


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