My mother’s room is filled with time.
Multiple clocks float along the wall in various modes of on and indifferent, pledging allegiances to faux-environmentalism and golf. Crucifixes and half-faded photographs of my father form a ghastly memento-mori. On the wall facing her bed, a photograph of elder church women is sandwiched between 40-year old photographs of her wedding: the church, refuge and tomb, what comes after marriage, after widowhood, after.
The past accumulates here, with time punctured by pictures of her grandchildren. Against this shrine to a life having being lived, their faces seem obscene, as solemn as those of children in obituaries. The flatness of matte surfaces and shiny faces is weighed down by the grisly playfulness of “I was here and this happened.”
She deems herself a survivor, and in this room of odds and ends, furniture that is too old and too new, the 30 year old vanity, chipped in its pseudo-Hollywood glamour, the brand new wood-hard unforgiving mattress, the desk that speaks to a newly acquired readerliness, and is built for a child. My sister studied for her CPE here.
This is a room contained in time, and its stories leak away: the curtains from my childhood. “Still good!” she insists. Their worn places tell of years of being opened and shut, the ritual that defined morning and evening in our house, in our lives, the transition from work to rest, from solitariness to togetherness.
These curtains, more than anything else, tell a story of survival: of what can be used, must be used, should not be discarded, might still have a story, use. In this new era where “wastage” is discouraged, the act of holding on, the promise of passing on extends life and its ghosts.
Last night, seeking some kind of comfort, I slept in her bed, availing myself of her absence. Perhaps, too, because she slept in my bed when she visited, and my back remembers the convenient discomfort of an air-mattress, too hard, too soft, constantly deflating, a metaphor for a certain state of mind.
There is a story to be told about beds as metaphors, But I remain caught by the curtains.
Light peeks in through the torn lining, patches of futurity, where the morning makes itself felt most richly and profoundly. Light calls to tomorrow—it is a survivor’s trick, to watch for the chinks in the wall that might announce, the dawning of a new day.
Cream, wreathed through in gold braid, in a style I can only call seventies, heavy with a weight that was equated with quality.
In this country of 12 hours of day and night, these curtains mark the distance between here and there, then and now, deprivation and comfort.
My childhood returns as a ritual devoted to drawing curtains all over the house, entombing the family, its ghosts and its memories in a protective womb. Rhyme tells an easy story—womb to tomb to womb, and the worn curtains, with their torn lining sing of barriers being gently rubbed away by a child’s hands.
In the abridged version that welcomed me to Dickens, miss Havisham sits in her faded wedding dress. At 8, I could not understand how anyone could abandon wedding cake to dust and spiders—it was my favorite, royal icing an infrequent and thus treasured treat.
In miss Havisham’s forever-preserved wedding day, a notion of time as desiccating, cobwebbed time, connecting then and now, this and that, potential and more potential. One holds onto time, relying on the tensile strength of memory, the fetish-power of things to ground one, anchors in time, across time, through time.
This shrine unsettles me. Pieces of her then and now, here and there, being and becoming, but always frozen, the unvarying smile a testament to what lingers.
I have grown careless with time, sure that it will pass and not return, averse to technologies that freeze it, that announce their freezing.
I hate photographs.
More than any other technology, they hold out the promise of freezing time, preserving one, but their glossy and matte surfaces refuse the reassuring comfort of pickles, the taste of time.
Would that we could be pickled, our lives preserved with flavor, infused with where we have been, who we have been with, touched by the thousands of bodies we have met, touched, and loved.
I have been sneezing and blowing my nose, my body irritated by this move home, the familiar allergen-dust that plagued my childhood envelops me. In another age, they might have said I am expelling foreignness from my blood, clearing room for the household spirits to invade me.
In the brief moments when I can see and breathe, I take in the familiar.
Perhaps the story might be more complex, that I expel the blend of here and there, 7 years away and 12 hours at home.
Many years ago, I suffered from the traveler’s disease, the adjustments to new food, new food-borne pathogens. Now, I eat without care, but I struggle to breathe and to sleep.
I wonder if I should confess that I learned to breathe when I left home for the first time, and I am now re-learning how one gets around breathing.
What lies behind the curtains?
In the temple, only the elect could were allowed behind the curtain. One would tie a string to another’s leg and hope that one did not have to use the string.
Faith. Trial. Error.
And the little man behind the machine.
I wonder what kind of faith one must have to keep drawing back one’s curtain, as though tomorrow the sun might rise elsewhere, or not at all. Or the feat that, thrown off-kelter, days and nights will no longer share the hours.
Tomorrow might be off by one minute.
As long as the curtains endure.
They have not faded. The gold braid has darkened, oxidized like real gold, gained in value. And they still divide day and night, in and out, their shabbiness a testament to their labor.
The curtains remind us that time acts unevenly on color: we fade and darken unpredictably, anchored by foregrounds and backgrounds, adornments and fringes.