Objects in Space

 

Outside my grandmother’s house there is a pond, shaped like a diamond. The pond is stagnant and ill-kept, filled with dead bugs and debris from the trees lining the surrounding yard. It’s laid in brick, and in the center stands the statue of a woman, a classical nude. It was likely beautiful once, but in all the years I’d been visiting the house, the water had been still and lifeless. I used to walk around the edges of the pond when I was younger, always afraid to fall in.

She had moved into the house with my grandfather in 1982, two years after I was born. They met while she was stationed in Eritrea during World War Two; he was a sergeant with the American forces, she a captain in the British civilian army. As the story goes, he couldn’t court her until he made lieutenant; when he made the request to the army to be allowed to get married, they shipped him to Egypt (American officers were discouraged from marrying non-American women). She followed him there, and two years later my father was born. None of this fit with my picture of her, of the woman that we’d go see every few months.

In my earliest memories, she is already old. If she changed at all during the years I knew her, it was only the subtle deepening of lines, and the incremental slowing down, like a watch unwinding. She spoke and moved slowly and deliberately, which made her stories dull to my young ears; I remember her sitting serenely in a chair, rocking gently, as if she had been born that way. Growing up, I equated these visits with something to be endured; she would take us toy shopping, and always we would have dinner at the same Mediterranean restaurant, significant only because it was always followed by a visit to a candy store where they sold multicolored gummy worms.

The two-hour drive from our house in the bay area to Santa Rosa was a sleepy one, winding through the vineyards of Sonoma County and Napa Valley, past towns and signposts that existed only, in my world, to gauge our proximity to her house. My sister and I would often lament the distance. There was a white fence on a hill by the road, derelict with age, which seemed to shrink over the years as if it were a living thing – it was this fence that told us that we were, in fact, there yet.”

I never knew my grandfather. Cigarettes took him when I was nine, and while it follows that I must have spent time with him during our visits up to that point, I have no memories of it. I inherited from him my middle name, and, many years later, an amber writing desk that I would claim on the last day I set foot inside their house. The desk sat in an upstairs study that overlooked the pond; the study was furnished with framed brushwork pieces hanging on the walls, and a yellow reading chair. I imagined him sitting in the desk, writing correspondences in the years following the war; it was deserving of such a story, of such a history.

My grandmother died a few days after Christmas in 2009. I was in the kitchen of my father’s house in Sausalito when he got the call; he was wearing a white terrycloth robe and slippers. He was not visibly shaken or upset when he told me the news, but I moved to hug him anyway, unsure of what else to do. I felt an almost paternal concern for him. A few weeks prior she had suffered the stroke which would finally and irrevocably signal that the end was near; at ninety-five, she had been an active woman both in terms of her physical health and her social life, teaching Hebrew at a Jewish temple, walking five miles a day, and up until the last year of her life, driving herself around in an old white Cadillac.

It had been a long time coming. For my part, I had prepared for it in the same manner I prepared for all things: with a detached and clinical air. At some point I learned – perhaps I taught myself – that I could protect myself from harm by forgetting the past – or if it could not be forgotten, by taking myself out of the story, and simply watching events unfold, always trying to make out as best I could. My father was not always distant or detached; I think, if anything, he had learned to compartmentalize his emotions from his parents, much as I would later learn to do in my own way. When I needed to shake things up or address a problem, I would rearrange furniture; I believed that by altering my surroundings, manipulating objects in just the right way, everything would fall into place. Once done, I’d forget that things had ever been otherwise.

I knew my grandmother had been controlling and headstrong; I knew that she and my father would frequently bicker during our visits, when he sensed this tendency expressing itself towards my sister and I. As she got older, he began to implore her to write down her life story; her wartime adventures, all the things she’d experienced over the years. It didn’t surprise me to learn that she resisted these appeals intensely; for her, to write things down was to acknowledge death, and that was something she would never do. The way she spoke about her life made it clear that there were secrets she intended to keep; stories begging to be told, that would never be told, whether out of fear, or shame, or something else.

By the time I was grown, our childhood visits to Santa Rosa had crystallized into a singular experience, each a minor variation on the last. We would arrive at the house, and she would greet us along the path leading to the front door, a frail figure beside the dirty pond; we would move into the main room and set down our things, then on to a narrow hallway which led to an immense garage. The garage was where the pool toys were kept. My sister and I would swim, and afterwards my father and grandmother would discuss politics, or a book one of them had read, while we watched the clock tick until it was time to go.

The front entryway of the house offered a stately coat-and-umbrella rack; to the left, a hallway opened up which led to her master bedroom, and a few small rooms for us kids. The main room of the house was a kitchen joined to a staid living room, like a war council lounge; atlases and tomelike National Geographics lining one wall, a meticulously carved Chinese scene in miniature, a brass duck with ducklings. A television, bought by my grandfather, that hadn’t seen use since his death. The entryway bordered a second living room, also never used; heavily textured oil paintings, a bronze statue of a Greek mythological scene, and a green tapestry sofa.

The kitchen was separated from the living room by a beige tile counter. It existed – to me – only as a place where I was given a certain brand of “healthy” sweetened cereal during each visit, a kind to be found only in her pantry. As the years passed I let myself believe that this cereal had only ever existed in this context, and that to attempt to find it in a store would be both pointless, and somehow disrespectful. I didn’t know it at the time, but there was something in me which sought to leave the past untouched; these objects and rooms, tinged with the smell of mothballs, no longer inhabited.

When I returned with my father on that final day, when all belongings were to be claimed prior to the estate sale, whatever I felt was submerged by the busyness of the occasion; among the bustle of more distant relatives I explored the familiar passageways, a cross between an actor and an anthropologist, noting the smells of the place, the sameness of it, feeling intensely aware of myself. I walked up the metal spiral staircase to my grandfather’s study, my eyes scanning the desk, mentally claiming it as mine. I was uncomfortably conscious of trying to preserve, sheerly through will, as much of the house as I could. It felt important, as if forgetting the details constituted some act of betrayal. I became aware of a new sensation: for the first time, I was touring the house, rather than being in it. I’d had this experience elsewhere, visiting family during breaks from school, and spending time in old haunts and former workplaces. The feeling of moving through a familiar space as if I were a traveling actor has always shamed me a bit, but I’ve grown used to carrying it. It is one thing to do it alone, and by choice; this was the first time I ever shared that feeling with strangers, and in the midst of that sorrowful and necessary exercise, I felt exposed.

I snapped a photograph of the pond out front, before we drove away.

* * *

It is three years since she passed, and even now Santa Rosa is painted in my memory with a veneer of soft light and hushed tones, like a ship trapped in a bottle, ageless and preserved.I refuse to acknowledge that technology could transport me back to those places effortlessly, could allow me to see the winding street leading up to her house, to learn the name of the candy store next to the restaurant if I but willed it. Somewhere along the way, I went from an aversion to the past to a nostalgic longing for it; where once I had made every effort to write it out of existence, now I wanted to remember, but only delicately. The past was a thing wrapped in old newspaper, helpless to withstand the gaze of modern times. I wanted to protect my image of it, and so protect myself as a part of that image.

The desk now sits in my room; a beautiful thing in its own right, but rarely do I give a thought to where it came from. I know there are stories in it, stories I may never know, but the busyness of life has reduced it to what it is: an object. The desk has suffered a few stains and dings since being in my care, and wherever it ends up after it leaves me, it will likely suffer the same fate. The photograph of the pond sits buried on my computer, and I know that whatever my reasons, I will never look at it. If the past is not wholly lost to me, then I will come to it on my own terms, peaceably, free from the cold and preserving lens of technology. It’s not the pond that brings my grandmother back to life, or the objects that define the lives they are a part of. That would be easy, if it were true; maybe that’s why I’ve always wanted to believe it. 

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