Despite a long fascination with these incredible inventions, until recently I had used the terms interchangeably. Apparently, staircases are framed inside a building. Stairways are public and can be outside a building.
My fascination with stairs therefore began with a stairway. My young parents had rented the upper storey of a duplex and the stairs to the door were on the outside of the building -- thus public and a stairway. In Quebec and the Ottawa Valley, this was not unusual. In the winter, they were always a treachery.
I was three years old that winter and a photographer had come to take my photo, despite the nasty snowstorm outside. Dressed suitably, I sat for a dozen or so pictures before the photographer, a pleasant man, easy with children, packed up to leave. He made his goodbyes and I watched from the doorway as he cautiously descended the icy stairway.
Nearing the bottom, he relaxed his attention for an instant. His feet flew north, bags east and west, and the rest of him south. Well, almost the rest of him. Hitherto undetected, his wig flew off. Warm from his head, it welded itself to the icy handrail.
Three-year-olds have very little compassion. I laughed until my knees buckled. I fell down and laughed some more. It wasn't his tumble that was so funny, it was the button on his pratfall. The flying wig.
Unhurt beyond his pride, he came back upstairs for some warm water to free his hairpiece from the ice. My mother sat him down and gave him a cup of tea. She went down and freed the wig for him.
Stairways and staircases are wonderful devices for taking us up or down, for transitions into safety or into danger. They are not just symbols or metaphors, however. We go up and down rhythmically and changes in that rhythm tell a story of what is in the mind of the person on the stairs -- even when falling.