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Tragedy and Treasures

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by Allegra Neely-Wilson

2014-06-20-AllegraNeelyWilsonphoto.jpg

A magical Christmas starts with a pair of socks. At 12, I see only one gift on Dad's dining room table. I unwrap it and find a pair of red and green socks. While trying them on, my right foot feels the scratch of a piece of paper. First secret code: 332. Dad has created a Christmas scavenger hunt. I travel the house, finding clues beneath pillows, under my bed and on page 332 of a book. A Harry Potter DVD is stuffed behind couch cushions, books hide in cabinets, and a soccer ball waits in the backyard. Dad and I spend the afternoon eating popcorn, watching movies, and drinking hot chocolate.

A year later, another hunt begins, reshaping my life. The day starts with a normal Eighth Grade morning. I wake up 10 minutes after my alarm, quickly dress and eat my bowl of oatmeal. A feeling grows in the back of my mind that something is wrong. At school, I am surrounded by friends and pretend everything is okay, though I can not shake that mysterious feeling of anxiety. I follow my usual route home. At my apartment, I am both eager and hesitant to enter, as I know something unexpected is behind those doors. I slowly build the courage to open the door and find Mom. Just by looking at her face I know my worst fear has come true. Dad has died of a heart attack. My life grows into a treasure hunt to capture Dad's sense of adventure and optimism on my own.

The summer after his death, I begin a five day canoeing trip on the Connecticut River. Like me, most of my fellow campers had never canoed. The sun set upon our arrival at the first campsite. We raced against the coming darkness, unpacking canoes and unloading our belongings and food. I was starved, exhausted, and happy as we set up tents and cooked. My adrenaline turned the night into a challenge and opportunity, which I attacked with a smile as if I was searching for something in Dad's backyard. Adventure!

Our ribs only saw ten minutes of fire. After the first bite, I relied on heavy sauce to cure my hunger rather than raw ribs. I fell asleep seconds after entering my sleeping bag but awakened by the rapid sounds of "pitter-patter" and a rush of water. We forgot to put the rain shield on the tents. Puddles grew. I jumped into action, quickly packing as much as I could to prevent things from getting even wetter. Shelter? I raced to the bathroom. Others followed. Huddled together near the stalls with our soaking wet clothes, supplies and sleeping bags, we cooked our eggs and ate them with un-toasted English muffins. Moments later, we loaded the canoes and continued down the river with the rain. The trip's rough beginning meant things would only get better. Optimism!

I visited Dad on weekends in Long Island. His itchy grass was a nice change from the cement of Manhattan, where I lived with Mom during the week. Dad was handy. Instead of buying me a soccer goal for my tenth birthday, my present was making one with him. He often oversaw the lighting for shows at small theaters. It's no wonder I never desired to audition for my school's production of Cabaret. Instead, I built props for the show and loved it.

I have tried hard not to lose Dad, which inspires my engagement of new interests like there is no tomorrow, from feeling the rush and sweat of the final minutes of a tied game to the most intense part of a Bach cello suite. My camera explores different views of the world and my hands mold ceramic gifts for friends. In doing it all, I find parts of Dad in who I am becoming, and create my own personal treasure hunt to continue discovering myself.

Allegra Neely-Wilson, a member of the Class of 2014 at the Brearley School, will be a freshman at Connecticut College in the fall.