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The Great White Copper Lie

How a set of broken copper glass candles taught me the lines of integrity.

Do you tell white lies? If your answer is “no”, congrats, you just told one. We all tell little lies. It’s just a simple part of being human, that we allow ourselves moral “legroom” to embellish or tell small untruths. We can easily rationalize away any breach in our code of ethics, because whatever the “fib” is, it’s usually not hurting anyone. Silly things like telling someone your hair is its natural color even though you dye it or shaving off a few strokes from your last round of golf to impress your buddies. Story told, no one harmed, life goes on. Of course, the depth to which we lie or how often is another story. If we become habitual about it or begin to lie in ways that impact other people’s lives in a negative way, we have crossed a line. We become “liars”. We begin to depend on it. Our integrity becomes questionable. And…eventually we get caught. The truth always comes out, in the end. The difference between the two is a fine line. As adults we have learned where that line is, and most of us don’t cross it, living life in relative integrity. Those women in the soccer mom’s club know you dye your hair anyway, so no big whoop.

The question I ponder is, when and how do we learn where that line is for each of us as individuals? I’d argue it comes from life experience and we start when we are very young. We test the waters as children and learn from the reaction of others and the impacts on ourselves. Tell a little lie here and there, with no consequences. Noted. Tell a big one, get caught and get in trouble. Also noted. We log these events in our ethical synapses and reference them later when it comes time make a choice in the future to tell the whole truth or to push the boundaries of reality. This process starts with our parents. As kids we lie to them on the regular, usually to avoid admitting something we did that we know will upset them or get us spanking or a grounding. It’s their responses and any resulting consequences that begin to lay the foundation of our moral code. A teaching that helps us begin to draw that fine line. We can all look back and remember those events form our past when we tested the water of integrity.

I have a vivid memory of one such event when I was ten years old. I have thought of it so often in my life that I began labeling it “The Great White Copper Lie”. It’s burned into my psyche, likely because I learned a valuable lesson from it. You see, what happened was…well…I broke a prized possession of my mother’s and tried to cover it up. While I succeeded in a temporary ruse to avoid my mother’s wrath, I eventually got caught, and when she found out…it wasn’t pretty.

Sometime before my mother met my stepfather, we lived in a small one-bedroom apartment in Wood Ridge, New Jersey. My mother was still single at the time and raising me on her own with the help of her sister and my grandparents. After leaving my father when I was a year old, we spent a few years living from place to place, until my mother could get herself established enough to have our own place. We stayed with her sister for a while, who had a spare bedroom in a refinished basement of her home on Hackensack Street. We also lived my aunt’s sister-in-law for some time, as my mother had become friends with her, and she was kind enough to let us stay. I have very few memories of living in those places, but the childhood moments of our time in that one-bedroom apartment on Marlboro Road are more vivid.

I distinctly remember the building was all brick with single set windows around it. The brick was not bright, but dark, with deep red and umber tones and variation in color speckled throughout. It was built like a rectangular cube with four levels, each with a repeating pattern of white windows dropped symmetrically on each floor. The facade ran the length of the building down Marlboro Road with the white stone framed door centered at the base, and decal black letters, with gold background, reading “500”. I remember as a kid thinking how large the building was and marveled at the lattice work of black fire escapes on the upper floors, with high gloss slotted metal floors and rails, and large ladders that would slide down to take you the next level. I often pondered how I could sneak out there and climb around like a monkey, and slide down from level to level, like a real life “Chutes and Ladders”. Alas, I never achieved that childhood dream.

The building and the apartment became a foundational element of childhood as my mother, and I lived there for many years. The dingy building floors were somewhat of a playground for me, and I would wander around the building on weekend afternoons, looking for way to activate my imagination. Each level had a wide-open large foyer style space, with doors to the apartments, lined on each side, in sets of three. The floors were covered with mosaic tile of red, white, maroon and black that formed a checkerboard pattern from corner to corner. The staircases were wide, and solid marble with thick dark painted wood railings that wound from the bottom floor to the top floor like a gothic gyroscope. I would stand on the top level and look down at the spiral pattern, pretending I could ride the banisters all the way to the bottom.

Our apartment was on the second level and the entrance was the middle door to the left, at the top of the second flight of stairs. Once inside it had a very long hallway that seemed like the length of a football field to me. The middle apartment on each side was designed to be a one bedroom that would sit on the side of the building, so the hallway was a pathway to the back. There was nothing along the hallway except a small closet and at the end it would open up to the living room, dining room and kitchen as one big space, and then a small hallway to the right with the bathroom to the left and the single bedroom at the end.

I have both fond, and not so pleasant memories, of the various spots around the apartment. Losing a tooth in the bathroom and bleeding all over my mom’s white towels as I watched her put pressure on it. Her willfully keeping calm while trying to keep my head over the heavy white ceramic sink, watching the drops of blood, mixed with water drain down. Or the time I spent a late night in the living room with my first computer, a Commodore VIC20 - a powerhouse of computing with its 20 kilobytes of memory and all the BASIC you could have fun with.

The hallway however was my least favorite part of the apartment. It had become in my mind, the runway of retribution. Every time I would do something bad, and let’s face it I was a little shit, as a kid, I would have to run down that hallway at top speed to attempt to avoid my mother’s wrath. In her short stature she hid the power of a cheetah and could express it in how fast she could run after me down that stretch to the much-deserved spanking I was about to receive. I’d quickly try to get to the end of the runway, with the dark wood floorboards rushing past my feet, panting, getting to the large heavy wood door, trying to unlock both the top and bottom locks and never quite getting to that safety chain the doors had, just as an added tier of security. I’d frantically reach out with my little hands, pushing to unlatch, but would never quite get to that last step before the inevitable whack on my butt was made. Invariably I would deserve it, and I know to this day it was the universe’s way of teaching me to understand the importance of respecting my mother and obeying her wise guidance. And it was the 80’s, parenting was much different then…spankings on the “bum” were a normal course of child rearing.

It was in this very hallway that I learned my lesson of integrity after the one event that I pushed the boundaries of lying to my mother beyond a small fib. I had become old enough to occasionally come home from school and not have to go to a sitter. I was a “latchkey” kid, and my mother trusted me enough to get home safe and keep myself busy until she could return from work and make dinner. There were strict rules that I was to follow for this arrangement, including coming home and not leaving again, unless accompanied by an adult, and there were certainly no friends allowed over under any circumstances. I usually dutifully obeyed these simple rules, mostly to avoid another failed attempt at runway retribution. Until, well…I didn’t.

My mother had just received as a gift, a set of candles, that were never meant to burn but be decorative. They were glass, with a faux wick at the top and little shavings of copper floating in the glass portion of the long candle, like little insects frozen into ancient tree sap. The long glass column descended into a carrying style holder with a drip pan, all made of copper, which allowed them to be placed conveniently on a shelf, or a side table, or in the case of my mother, the small coffee table sitting in our living room, next to the couch. "Beautiful!", I remember her saying as she placed them down, and looked at me with a snark smile. "If you break them kiddo, you're grounded for life."

Just about the same time she received these pillars of decorative charm, I had been spending time coming home from school and doing the "latchkey" kid thing more and more. It was a step in the direction of young adulthood and I prided myself on being able to do it and prove some self-sufficiency. I had become so comfortable at it that I began to let my guard down, believing I had full control and could break the rules a bit.

One day after school, my friend John and I had been discussing his new purview into computing and how he was asking his parents to get one. I was then so proud of my VIC20 that was I was eager to show it off. At that ripe old age of 10 I had become a master of basic…um…BASIC, and so would gladly demonstrate. That coupled with my newfound independence as a kid who could get himself home from school and mind the house, I decided I was in charge enough to break one of Mom’s golden rules and invite him over to see the computer. “Harmless”, I thought. We can mess around with our genius programming skills, and he can leave before mom gets home. No one will be the wiser. And so it was that John accompanied me back to the apartment that day. We dutifully stepped off the school bus, backpacks on our shoulders and walked through the glass doors, past the 500 black and gold decals. We walked through the first floor of mosaic tile and ascended the marble stairs, holding on to the dark handrails up to the second floor. I was concerned that a neighbor would see or hear us, so were being extra careful not to make noise. My heart was pounding a little as we made our way up to the middle door on the left and entered the apartment. I had just broken latch key kid rule number one, and I was a bit nervous.

John and I went through the usual motions of what kids do, grabbing a soda and a snack, talking about the day at school, complaining about teachers and other students. But it wasn’t long before we began to get right into the computing. It was set up in the living room, and attached to the TV, with a little black and silver box switch that allowed us to switch the AV source from the computer to the regular TV signal. It had wires that ran from the small off-white rectangular box with black keys and the little Commodore logo at the top. I grabbed the computer with the wires running along the floor to the left of the coffee table and sat down on the couch. I began clicking away at the black keys, showing off my BASIC, listening to the loud clicking of the keys as I typed away. I was busy writing a simple program to show John what it could do. I distinctly remember looking out of the corner of my eye and noticing mom’s copper glass candles, standing at attention on the coffee table. A ping of regret went through me, as I thought once again of breaking mom’s golden rule, but also a sense of relief that it appeared I was going to get away with it without getting caught. John, meanwhile, was busy watching the word repeat program play out, when he decided it was his turn to give it a shot.

John was a bigger kid than me, and certainly stronger. He was strangely tall for our age and had seemed closer to entering puberty than the rest of us boys in the class. As such, he was a force to be reckoned with. “Let me try”, I remember him saying as he reached out for the Commodore to grab it out of my lap. Stunned a bit, but ok with him taking it to try, his boarding school reach to grab the computer was merely in support of why he was there. He began tapping away, trying some basics of his own and not really succeeding. “Give it back to me”, I said, and “I can show you what to do”. “No, no, I got it", he replied, as he continued to struggle, slowly pecking away at the black keys with their deep rooted, “click”, “click”, trying to get the command to work. I watched as he tried over and over, but the perfectionist in me became overwhelmed with the need to fix the situation. “Let me try”, I said as I stood up and grabbed the computer out of his hands. It was at this moment that the Copper Candles came into my peripheral once again, and I could feel the sudden horror come over me as I realized the choice I just made, would bring the wires from the computer to the TV, up over the coffee table, and swipe right across mom’s glass candles. I watched, almost in slow motion, as the black cords struck them and they swung to their side tipping over with such speed, they looked like wisps of light in the night sky. And then came the gut-wrenching sound as I witnessed them land on each other in such a fashion that they broke each other in half… “crack”, “crack”.

I stood back from the coffee table slowly letting the Commodore drop from my hands to the couch, peering at the broken candles split cleanly in half, each lying next to other like a setup of Pick-Up Sticks, as the black TV cords, that just sealed my doom, drifted back to the floor. I looked at John and he had a look of horror on his face as well. “Oh man, that’s not good, is it?”, he said. “No!”, I replied, ‘I’m going to be in so much trouble.” “My mother is going to ban me to a lifetime of solitude in an undisclosed location, without access to this computer and my Transformers…I’m thinking food might also be off the table.”

John sat there for a second, a pensive look on his face. “Well, they are clean breaks, he said, you could just fix them. Do you have any Crazy Glue?”. A lightbulb went off in my head, it wasn’t such a bad idea. I could fix them, do a really good job and then my mother would be none the wiser. It just so happened that we did have Crazy Glue, I remembered my mother buying at the convenience store downstairs. So, I ran into the kitchen and grabbed the glue out of the “junk” drawer and jolted back to the coffee table. I picked up the four glass carcasses and executed the process of mending them with surgical precision, asking for John’s help in holding the glass portions at just the right angles to allow me to apply the glue and push them back together without it spilling down the edges. We worked hard, it must have taken at least 15 minutes, but when we were complete, there they stood, two pillars of perfection, bounded perfectly. I placed them back on the coffee table and stepped away to make sure you could not see the cuts in the glass. The lines were visible, but you did have to get close to see the hair width strands across the clear glass, sitting there like a crack in my conscience, bearing witness to not only the guilt of breaking the rules, but the egregious act of the coverup.

I asked John to leave and quietly exit the building and not get caught, while I tided the place up for my mother’s return from work. I was pacing around the small apartment checking all the details, careful to cover the tracks of my rule breaking and any signs of my guest, or the severed decorative candles. I did a once over on their placement to be sure they were exactly where they were before the unwarranted execution. I also sat back on the couch to make sure the lines were not visible from a normal distance. All good. I was ready for my mom. I could do this.

Mom returned in her normal frenetic way after a busy day at work. I could hear her keys on the door as she unlatched the locks I always tried to do from the other side, with no success. She walked down the hallway with her normal briskness and proceeded about her routine of getting changed and beginning the process of getting dinner ready for us. I sat on the couch the entire time, pretending to do homework. Constantly gazing at the candles as they stared back at me, mocking me, as if they could talk. “You are never going to get away with this Keith. She will find out; she will see you ruined us”.

“How was your day kiddo? Did you get home from school ok?”, mom asked. “Fine I said, busy day with classwork. What’s for dinner?”, I nervously replied, trying to change the subject. “Probably Steak-Ums and some canned green beans”. She got out the frying pan and went about her business for cooking the meal. Luckily that night we had dinner on the small kitchen cafe table placed just before the linoleum floors in the kitchen, along the transition edge to the hardwoods of the living room. I ate my dinner patiently and carefully, feeling the candles eyes burning into my back the whole time, praying mom would not see them broken. Realizing that if it took this long without her notice, I had gotten away with it. My great white lie had been a success.

It wasn’t until three days later, when Mom was using her weekends off to clean the apartment, that my ruse fell apart. She was meticulous about the condition of our small living space, and even thought it was old and rundown, it was always clean and germ free. She would run around dusting, vacuuming, bleaching, shining. A little ball of energy, zooming about the place. I was helping her that day, in the kitchen mopping the linoleum floors with Spic and Span. She was vacuuming in the living room and, as luck would have it, something was on the floor that was not being picked up into the vacuum. Mom put the Electrolux handle down on the floor, and bent down to pick up, whatever it was.

As I stood in the kitchen, mopping away to the sudsy scent of the Spic and Span, I could see my mother on the ground by the coffee table. She found what she was looking for and slowly started to rise, when her eyes were drawn to the items directly to her right. I could see from where I was standing, that she was looking at her candles only an inch away. Her head then cocked to the left a bit…staring in wonder. And then back to the right, again staring into space, like a dog waiting for you to throw the ball. She got a little closer, and then closer and then closer, and the stood up and picked one up. She homed in on the thin line in the middle of one of the candles and I could see the look of revelation and anger on her face. She turned to me in the kitchen, eyes of literal fire in her head. “Oh shit”, I thought. “That’s it I’m done for, I’m caught. What do I say, how can I get out of it should I fess up? Should I lie?”

“Is there something you want to tell me, Keith Bradford Alyea?”, as she would always drop my full name when I was in deep trouble. Panic setting in, sheer fear for my livelihood and my future washing over me, I chose to do the one thing that I now know I should not have. I lied, blatantly, bold-fully, whole-heartedly.

“No Mom, nothing. Why?” I replied. “Well, these candles are broken, and not only broken, but glued back together. So, unless there is some ghost living in this house, how did they break and who fixed them?”, she said. She began to walk towards me with one candle in her hand. She shoved it in my face, so I could clearly see the crack. “I have no idea, Mom. I’m just seeing it for the first time myself”, I replied. I slowly edged away from her, positioning myself for the runway of retribution, peering down the long hallway, eying my chances for escape…knowing the odds were bleak.

“I can see it in your face, kiddo, you are lying to me”, she said. “How did this happen? Did you have someone over? Were you roughhousing? Did you fix them to try to hide them from me?”, she asked. And I couldn’t help myself, I just kept lying, “No, no, it wasn’t me, Mom, I have no idea what happened”. Again, stepping further away from her and closer to the hallway, still believing I could make it down that football field to escape what I knew was coming. I could see it in her eyes she knew everything, and the jig was up. She could read me like a book…my body language, my face, my emotions.

Mom took a deep breath, laid the candle down on the kitchen table and then began to roll her tongue backwards as it stuck out of her mouth. The dreaded tongue roll. This was my universal sign for getting a spanking and I knew that it was now time to beeline it for the runway. Booking it down as fast I could, running for the locks, pushing those dark hardwoods away from my feet, watching them swim past me, barely making to the safety chain…small hands, locks, chains, faster…no dice. Failing yet again to make it out the door and then the spanking. I lied, I got caught, I hit the runway, I didn’t make it, I had to suffer the consequences. I wasn’t allowed to touch that Commodore for weeks and was grounded to nothing but schoolwork at home for the same time.

It wasn’t until much later in adulthood that my mother and I were swapping memories of the old apartment, the memory of the long hallway came up. We laughed about all the times I did bad things and tried to avoid the punishment. She did remember the candles. I’ll never forget how she smiled, remembering how she uncovered my plot. We were sharing a glass of wine together, and she turned to me and said, “Well kiddo, it wasn’t the fact that you broke the candles, they were ugly anyway, it was that you tried to cover it up, and you lied to me about two things, the candles and your visitor.”

I looked back in shock, “Wait, what? Visitor? and I thought thou said they were beautiful?", I asked. We had never talked about the John visiting part of the whole ruse. “Yeah, yeah, she said, I knew he came over that day, Mary downstairs told me she saw him leaving the building.”, she said. “I was going to let it slide, until I saw the candles.” I never knew until that moment that mom had known days before the candle discovery that John had been over to the apartment. She was going to let my white lie slide, but candle breaking was a step too far. “Don’t bother lying Keith Bradford Alyea, the truth always comes out,” she said, grinning as she took a sip a wine.

And so it was, the Great White Copper Lie was my first step toward understanding the lines of integrity and the life lesson from my mother (and ugly decor), to be truthful when it counts. As we all live in a period of time when the lines of truth are getting blurred in our national conversation…don’t forget to look back to those childhood moments, when you started realizing what the truth was, what it really meant, and how those moments have become the fabric of your moral code. Listen to them. Learn from the memories. Know your truth.

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Jun 05, 2022

Great writing. Really enjoyed the descriptions of the apartments and surroundings, as it brought it to life. Definitely got me thinking about how pliable the "lie branch" is when you try to bend it and bend it to meet your needs. Guilty. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. :) A

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