The Peripatetic Pagoda

What a world of endless wonder is childhood. My Bammaw’s house was, to my little girl eyes, an especially fascinating wonderland. (When I was a toddler, I couldn’t enunciate “Grandma,” so she was “Bammaw” to me for years.) The house was small, situated on an out-of-the-way street in a modest neighborhood in Corpus Christi, Texas. The street elevation was nothing special—just a small pier-and-beam frame house with a few trees in front and a ligustrum hedge beneath the bedroom windows. But inside, on every horizontal surface was displayed the most amazingly eclectic collection of tchotchkes. And on every wall hung all manner of artful things, from photographs to mirrors to string art. Bammaw’s collection was steadily built over her lifetime. By the end of her life, a stroll through her house was like a lesson in the changing aesthetics of the last half of the twentieth century. She had an artist’s eye but no formal training. And she wasn’t proud. Many of her things were kitschy in the extreme, but they appealed to her, and so she brought them home to reside among the more dignified pieces. When my brother and sister and I would arrive for our biannual visit (the week following Christmas and two weeks during the summer—we were there to see our father, but he never had appropriate accommodations for us, so we always stayed with Bammaw and Pappaw), I would unpack first, and then I would always wander from one room to the next to look at her lovely and quirky decorations.

The one piece that always pleased more than any other was a long (like a banner) depiction of a Japanese pagoda. It was clearly made from an art kit from the early sixties. Even though I was too young to articulate “early sixties” and give a description of what art from that era looked like, I could feel it. It was, after all, the aesthetic of my formative years. The pagoda was outlined in black string that was glued to the background, and its roof with upturned eaves was made of shiny gold mosaic tiles. Off to the side was a graceful cherry tree in bloom, again outlined in black string. The inside of the trunk was thousands of tiny brown glass pieces glued on. The leaves were mosaic tiles that looked like leaves, and the blooms were little pinkish-red glass flowers. It was, to my mind, the quintessentially quirky Bammaw-esque piece of art. But the other thing that made the pagoda special was that it moved. Bammaw had many pieces that had never moved in my lifetime. The little green-painted scallop shell cactus was always on top of the medicine cabinet in the bathroom. The Pike’s Peak and Oklahoma state fair collector’s plates were always above the sink in the kitchen. But the pagoda moved around, always in the back part of the house. When I grew up and Grandma was old (I stopped calling her “Bammaw” when I was eleven), I began to think that I would someday like to have the pagoda when she was gone, as a way of remembering her.

On a visit when I was well into my thirties, when I was a mother of four myself, Grandma asked me if I would like to have it. I was thrilled. It was as if she had read my mind, or as if God had put it into her heart. You see, I had never asked for it. But then Grandma went on to explain how she had acquired the pagoda. It seems that my mother and father, in the first year of their marriage, while they were expecting me, I guess, made the pagoda together. Grandma said that when my parents split up, she felt she couldn’t throw it out because it was something they did together. She felt she should keep it as a remembrance of when they loved each other because a marriage was a sacred thing. But at the same time, since her son had made it with a woman he was no longer married to, she felt like she couldn’t put it in the living room. So she hung it in the back hallway or one of the bedrooms. I was terribly disappointed to learn the pagoda’s history. Something I had always loved became permanently tarnished in my estimation. I could no longer think about it with the wonderment of a child; I could only see it as a fallen, damaged thing. The pagoda went from being a happy symbol of my childhood to being a symbol of the pain I felt over my parents’ divorce. I think Grandma was relieved to pass it on to me after all those years of angst over whether to keep it or get rid of it.

So I took the pagoda home and laid it on a shelf in my closet. Interestingly, Grandma not only passed along the pagoda itself, but also her angst over whether to keep it or donate it to charity. Like her, I would like to honor my parents’ marriage because, as she said, marriage is a sacred thing. Also, as the child of their painful divorce, I would like to have a memorial to the love that my parents once had for each other. At least I suppose they did. They split up when I was six, and my only memories of them together are of them arguing. Upon contemplating the pagoda one day, and inevitably my parents’ unhappy marriage and even unhappier divorce, I had a moment of epiphany in which I realized that throughout most of my life I had looked upon their getting married as a colossal mistake and that my existence was just the result of that huge blunder. As an adult, I know it’s not uncommon for children to internalize guilt when their parents divorce. Nowadays, many couples go to great lengths to assure their children that the divorce has nothing to do with them, that they did nothing wrong. No adult ever said anything remotely like that to me. I guess it hadn’t occurred to anyone yet that children might need to hear it. I thought I had dealt with the divorce aftermath and learned to see myself as independent of it, but apparently some bad thinking was still lurking behind a corner in my mind. Even though I would like to have a visual confirmation that the marriage was a good thing in some way, it seems morbid to keep the pagoda around as Miss Havisham did with the ruins of her aborted wedding. Therefore, I too experienced ambivalence, thinking one moment that I should throw it out and the next, feeling as though I should display it. After all, it has a significance to me that transcends its history—it still reminds me of my Grandma, and even more so now that we share a kindred spirit of uncertainty as to what to do with it.

I think God has directed me to take the raw materials off it and make a new picture from them because it’s what God does with our messy lives when we come to Him through the blood of Jesus. He takes the ruins of our potential, rearranges things into the way they ought to have been all along, and makes a beautiful life. Or at least that’s what He wants to do with us. Our cooperation—really, our focused co-laboring—is indispensable to that happening. With God’s help I put aside my childhood misery over the divorce a few decades ago. I’ve forgiven both my parents for putting me through a hard time. And I know now that I am more than just part of a mistake that a man and woman made long ago. The best memorial to the family we once were is my brother and sister and I, not a kitschy art-kit pagoda. Isaiah 49:1 says that “the Lord has called me from the womb.” Psalm 139: 16 says, “Your eyes saw my substance, being yet unformed. And in Your book they were all written, the days fashioned for me, when as yet there were none of them.” Whether or not it was a mistake for them to marry, I am something good, and I was always part of God’s plan. I’m grateful to my Grandma that she kept the pagoda for all those years just so God could use it to teach me that though my parents’ marriage didn’t make it, I did.

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