American Fiction Holiday

There is a child making construction paper decorations for the fall. She has long, medium brown hair. Her hair is caught back high on her head, carefully, neatly. It is gathered in a pony tail held with a barrette held in place with plastic teeth above and a rubber band below. There are perfect, even braids on each side of her head that are gathered skillfully in with the pony tail. 

Because the girl is barely eight years old, if that, the hair style must be the work of a mother. Perhaps a mother with old-fashioned ideas about how to do her daughter’s hair, but still, there weren’t many who would take so much time every morning to do all that combing and brushing, or to be sure there were always art supplies for her daughter.

The well-styled little head is not thinking about the work of art that is her pony tail with the symmetrical braids and the butterfly barrette. That head is bent slightly forward, studying the objects on the table in front of her. It almost seems like she’s doing an inventory, but that is not the case. She is looking at all the things before her eyes, and her eyes are very happy. She has everything she needs. Her mother has seen to that.

There is construction paper in two packets, each still wrapped in crinkly cellophane that will soon be torn off. That crinkly sound is a sign that things, pretty things, are about to happen. The colors of the paper are standard, but seem bright to the child. She is not yet aware that the red, blue, green, yellow, pink, purple, even the black and brown, will fade. The white, on the other hand, will turn yellowish, dingy. 

These papers are precious now in all their plainness, although they are not like the ones the once-young artist will use in a different type of art entirely, decades later. That art is irrelevant.

Texture, that too ought to be taken into account. The little girl, who is not all that little perhaps, thinks she can tell the colors by their textures. And by their temperatures. She closes her eyes, shuffles the sheets of paper, all new and 8 1/2 by 11 inches. Then she tries out her theory of being able to identify the colors by touch, eyes completely shut. She gets some of them right, some wrong. It’s just a game she likes to play.

Scissors with colored plastic handles are also on the table, waiting for the child. They aren’t sharp, but her mother isn’t quite ready to have her use the adult kind if there is no adult in the room. The girl is active, and running with scissors is always a bad idea.

Glue and scotch tape are off to one side, also patiently waiting. It might seem redundant to have both, but it doesn’t hurt to have a choice for attaching paper shapes to one another. This is a question of being prepared. Maybe, too, the papers will be glued together, but the decorations would probably be taped, not glued, up. Things for sticking one side to another side, that is the main idea.

The fact that neither tape nor glue would be good for putting up a child’s decorations is of little concern to the girl or to her mother. There is no concern at all, in fact. The girl is just there, sitting at the table, for the purpose of creating. Nothing else matters. There are no limits. Total trust.

To make fall decorations, it is also important to have something to make marks with - a pencil, crayons in a round tin box that once held a fruitcake, perhaps a pen. Maybe glitter would be useful, but there is none on the table. There has to be some in the house, though, so if it came to that, somebody can find it. The house seems to have everything. It’s like a general store. It’s so big, yet it’s snug. (This is what the girl thinks.)

Now that the materials and utensils are accounted for, the artistic process can begin. One of the first considerations concerns the shapes to be cut from the paper and the sizes of each. Leaves, berries, pumpkins, scarecrows. Crows, fences, barns, apples, haystacks, corn bundles. Oak and maple leaves. Pine boughs and pine cones. Acorns. (There might be more shapes to come.)

Besides the shapes related to plants and animals, there was always the paper chain option, with all the circlets stapled together. The decorations were usually red and green if made in December, but if they were made starting in September, in the northern part of the country, there might be more colors - brown and yellow or mustard, for example. Naturally, it would be advisable to have a stapler for this decoration because construction paper didn’t always adhere to itself well when tightly coiled.

The weather is not very important, but if it’s cool, the girl has to bundle up better in the big old drafty house. The dining room has a single floor register, located beneath the sideboard. The register leads to a furnace in the cellar that is fueled by either firewood or coal, according to what was on hand. There is no thermostat. 

To the child, this is a given: work on the dining room table, with little heat, but with lots of space to spread out the materials being used. In case it gets too cold, a parent will go down to the cellar to stoke the furnace. Funny how neither of them ever complains. It’s a way of life.

Today the hot or cold of the house is not an issue. The girl with the pony tail gets to work, not shivering or sweating, just thinking very hard about the paper emporium on the table. She plans, measures (just a little), plans some more, then searches for more ideas. She thinks about what she sees on her way to school in the little village. She thinks about what she can see from her desk beside the huge classroom window. She thinks about her back yard. 

She is in the dining room thinking about all these things she has seen in these places, things that signal the coming of fall. Many of the autumnal images are similar, like the leaves on the playground and the ones around her house. Mostly they are maple leaves, which is fine because they are the best and they turn the most colors. Another day, soon, the girl will gather a few of the beautifully-colored maple leaves and press them between sheets of wax paper. You can never do much with the leaves pressed like that, but they are still pretty, until they turn brown because the wax paper isn’t such a good seal after all.

The dining room has no leaves that have turned to red and yellow, but it has texture of all kinds. Wainscoting runs from the old hardwood floors that always needed waxing but never got very good care halfway up the wall. At about waist level, the wainscoting (the girl will never hear it called bead board until half a century later) ends in a narrow ledge. That is where the flat part of the wall begins, but flat is a very relative term, because those dining room walls have never been adequately patched or plastered. The bottom half is one color and the top half might be a different color of paint or wallpaper with gaudy peony-like blooms. Gaudy, in a house belonging to simple people.

Furniture and doors round out the rest of the decor pretty much. There are many doors in the dining room, and some of them lead to special places or spaces. This may all sound irrelevant to the child’s activity of cutting paper to make fall decorations, but it’s not. This is because the child is intensely, almost obsessively, aware of where she is. She feels as if she has grown out of the house, or maybe it is the opposite. It is as if the house is something to which she has given birth.

Because these borders between girl and house or home are so incredibly porous, she is in the dining room at the table but her mind also has thoughts for the sideboard or the china closet, even when she is not looking at them. She is outside the doors looking in, but she is also inside, just listening to the pulse of the house.

She never has counted the doors into the room and out of it, but she stops for a moment and thinks about them. There are three doorways with actual doors that close and shut, one doorway that has no physical door but must have had one once. One is the attic door. One is to a closet that is not often opened. Four cabinet doors with lovely old swivel openers get more use. 

Oh, that cabinet! The little girl will never ever see such a well-designed storage space, such an elegant one, the rest of her life. Finally, there is a drop-down door about 12 by 10 inches that nobody knows what its original use was, but is really interesting to guess what it was for. It seems to go nowhere, to have no opening, but it is not the right shape for anything important. Is there a key to it somewhere in the universe? The girl has wondered about this.

However, the child has a world to decorate and a world of paper to do it, so she must focus on that. She works very hard, so caught up in her ideas and manual efforts that she does not know how long she has been there, sitting at the table and doing things. Maybe it has been thirty minutes, but maybe it has been three hours.

At last it is time to display the results of these efforts. The child knows the work will be highly praised because she knows her mother is kind like that. No suggestions will be made, there will be a nice hug, and that will be all. That is the way art work by seen or eight year olds should be judged.

How to hang up the work? That is question still remains. The response needs both parental approval and a chair or stool. The little girl has been supervised by her mother even though she did not realize how close that supervision has been. All she needed to do was know her mother was there. Standing on a chair on tiptoe is not recommended, though. This is also the only point where maternal suggestions are offered, such as how high to attach the chain, whether or not to loop it across the doorways, which autumn paper shapes go best in which windows, things like that. The actual autumn or holiday scenes might receive front and center display on a wall or door. That required a taller hand.


I have been going through some things that were taken from my mother’s house after she passed away and after I was finally able to get back inside. Many things had been removed, a lot of them without permission and - in fact - against my wishes. Stolen. Trashed. Pawned. Gone.

Still, I have been able to rescue some items and this is one of the boxes that nobody seemed to have felt the need to steal. Useless things, things that are flat and have no value. Paper, and not even pretty. Faded, folded in some wrong places. Kid stuff. Familiar stuff.

I cannot move and do not want to think. I know I cannot speak, at least for now. I look down at the faded paper in my hands, see it is creased in a very cruel way, not readily identifiable as an acorn, a squirrel, a maple leaf, an ear of corn, or a pumpkin. I don’t know what it is - yet - but I will.

I touch the paper, moving my fingertips in circles. I ponder the shapes that might be made from it. I select the design, trace it with the pencil in my mind, then reach for and move imaginary scissors to cut the paper, the papers. The scissors definitely are too small for my fingers. They hurt my knuckles.

I am clumsy, or feel like I am. Is it the fault of the scissors, the thoughts that are here and were here, or is it the arthritis? It should not be that hard to cut construction paper, or in the case in hand, to cut the air. Perhaps the clumsiness comes from having too much freedom, from not knowing that a mother is unobtrusively supervising me. There is no mother to do that at this point. There was once, but not any more. I feel the risk of clumsiness or insecurity that wasn’t there before.

I move my hands, hold the shapes, see the ghosts of colors. I look for the doors in the dining room, all eleven of them, counting the four cabinets that opened onto the other side of the wall, onto the kitchen. I know there is nobody left in the world who can count those doors, who knows where they all lead to, and wants to open them again. I swear I am the last of my kind, and I reach deeper into the textures that are still with me. The colors may have abandoned us, but the surface of the paper and I are still here. 

I turn to the paper as if turning toward the mother who should hug and praise me.

I weep with all these movements, like the rain that is watching me.

October 17, 2020 00:15

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Elle Clark
14:45 Oct 21, 2020

This was beautiful! The level of detail in each of the descriptions is just stunning - it all builds so quietly and powerfully. The ending really caught me and, I think because you’d spent so long on the descriptions of the 8 year old, the contrast with the young and old version of herself was so stark and so moving. Great work!


Kathleen March
16:01 Oct 21, 2020

Thank you so much. You really read the story as I'd hoped. The older version of the girl only worked for me if it started with the younger one. That's because the older women was drawn so quickly into the past by finding the old artwork saved by her mother. I truly appreciate your comment.


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