Copyright © Diane L. Schirf
Inside the closet the air is chilly, as though it were coming through a gateway from the place where the past is buried. A lifetime’s accumulation of old clothes hang and lie there — yellowed cotton shirts, pants with torn seams, dresses faded like old women with age and wear and washing. The flotsam of years of living washed up in one place.
The closet is in an inside wall, and it is at least 10 degrees colder than the bedroom.
The colder air seems to flow over her memories, stirring them up. There is the dress worn under the graduation gown on the day when youth and security are pushed aside to make room for the unknown and unplanned future of adulthood. This was the day when the future that had loomed since birth comes as a surprise. This was the moment when she sensed that she was about to take the center stage of her life. This was the moment every laugh, every tear had been leading up to. The rehearsals were over; this was opening night.
And then the dawning realization and growing certainty that now she was just another responsible grownup, looking and acting and maybe even feeling like all the other responsible grownups, with all the specialness of childhood sacrificed to the conformity of maturity, another generic face and name, another unheard voice, another undistinguished member of the chorus continuing the time-honored tradition of producing more generations of aching sameness and disappointment, dressed differently and thinking alike always of tomorrow but never of next year.
There is the pastel blue and pink of the bridesmaid’s recollection before the happy couples for whom she stood acquired mortgages, minivans, and assorted children in various stages of expensive yet unnecessary orthodontia treatment. Before the happy couples threw themselves, no turning back, into the effort to become even more average than their neighbors, changing jobs, changing addresses, changing climates, trading cramped suburban subdivisions for sprawling suburban subdivisions with big plastic homes on tiny plots of land, exchanging blizzards for hurricanes, clinging to the rock of evolving traditions and the facade of piety to anchor and protect them in the waves and winds formed from their own uncertain discontent.
There is the windup musical Ferris wheel, with its four limb-less riders, three children and one dog, operated by the same sneering middle-aged man who hasn’t aged a day in 40 years of mindlessly pushing the wheel around. A song that has the power to evoke a simplicity of feeling that never existed starts up, plays, slows down, and begins all over again, never changing cadence, only speed. Meanwhile,the operator wears a mask of contempt because he knows now what the children will know soon enough (although the fortunate dog will be spared). Today’s Ferris wheel of fun and innocent joy will soon become a life’s wheel of dreary repetition, with the same patterns appearing over and over, at the top and at the bottom. Hope followed by despair followed by flatness, buoyed by hope, sunk by despair, evened by flatness, but never so evenly as in a turning wheel. Brief hope, long anguish, the ascent and fall, the shorter ascents and shorter falls, shorter and shorter, until acceptance that there is no reason to ascend again, that the body and mind are both exhausted, that at the end there can be only the utter weariness and utter peace of descending, of falling, of letting go. Perhaps because he knows that the only real direction is downward, the direction each person is pointed in even at the moment of birth.
There are the photo albums remorselessly documenting discrete moments in hundreds of lives for dozens of years. Some people and events are known; many are strange or forgotten. There are wedding photos, baby photos, bathing photos, nude photos, eating photos, birthday party photos, day trip photos, vacation photos, school activity photos, friends photos, garden photos, neighborhood photos, graduation photos. There are no death photos in the albums, although they exist, hidden away, for those who need to preserve every moment of a life, even when it is gone and only the failed mechanism remains, even now continuing what began at birth — breaking down, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, New York to Tripoli, Tripoli to Jakarta, wherever dust may drift, maybe long after the photograph has faded from existence. Joined with the elements of the earth, the photo and the body perhaps someday will be reunited by the winds, the winds that blow over a dead planet as easily as a living one.
What of the brides in the photos? Some of them face the future with a warm smile of eager anticipation, seeming sure of all the things they will lose or never have — health; money; prosperity; happy children; a secure home; a purposeful life; the same man by their side in 50, 60, or 70 years as the one standing next to them in their today. There is no reflection in the shine of their clear eyes of what will happen. There are no arguments, no brutal beatings, no drunken binges, no nights spent alone wondering why? or why not?, no one-night or three-week or seven-month stands, no car accidents, no falls, no miscarriages, no threats, no suicides, and no end in sight except the inevitable.
Other brides look into the lens of the future somberly, even angrily. They seem to witness a future filled with misfortune, woe, mundane unhappiness, violence, boredom, and grief. A future bereft of love or even a single moment of spontaneous joy. How many of these sober women would find that their marriages did not live up to the appalling expectations their grim expressions anticipate?
There are the dingy stuffed animals hurriedly thrown into a plastic trash bag for moving and storage, heads and tails and limbs entwined or mashed randomly against one another. When the blue camel was young and bright, it lay sprawled on its floppy legs in a position of pride on the child’s narrow bed. At 13 or so, she had seen it in a store while shopping with her mother and had mentioned that it was cute. It reappeared later that year, its irregular form carefully wrapped and placed under the Christmas tree. “I didn’t know what to get you, and you’d said it was cute,” her mother told her, almost apologetically.
Perhaps her mother was remembering the time, years before this, when the daughter, then a little girl, wistfully yearned for a toy she’d seen on television. When it arrived, the little girl screamed and cried until worn out, then fell into a deep sadness because the toy, adorable as it was, did not talk and giggle and make animated faces like the one on TV. It could not be her friend. If the daughter learned that day that the world is a cheat that only the imagination can cure, the mother discovered the heartbreak of disappointing a child she wanted only to please. Things were never the same between them again.
The daughter thanks the mother politely for the camel, but senses that she is supposed to have outgrown such toys. The mother realizes it was not the ideal gift but doesn’t know what else to do. It has been a long time since she was 13 years old, and the world has changed so much since then, when she herself was grateful for any acknowledgment, any small gift — a feeling she still has.
Today, decades later, the camel is a faded, dusty, dirty but much-loved symbol of the daughter’s painful realization that her mother loved her and received only impatience and indifference in return. It is too late to apologize for her selfishness and to purge its taint from both their memories, for one memory is no more, so the other must carry the burden forever.
If the blue camel is a reminder of childhood and adolescent passages, the absence of the bright red squirrel (or was it a skunk?) is proof that happiness, or at least simple contentment, lasts no longer than a belief in the tooth fairy, Easter bunny, or Santa.
Her brother gave her the red squirrel some time before her transformation into a teenager. It was precious in the way all stuffed animals are to a lonely little girl; it had friendly eyes and a happy expression. Its nose fell off several times and was finally lost, but what does a nose mean to a bright red squirrel or its young owner, who loves the soft thing with passion because it has the personality she would wish it to have.
It did not have a plush body, but what it did have was a broad tail full of long, streaming white fur — a tail that was made for petting. And pet it she did, obsessively, for hours, as though each stroke assured her that she was loved enough to deserve petting and cuddling herself.
That Christmas, she took the squirrel (or was it a skunk?) with her family as they drove around wealthier neighborhoods than theirs to see the Christmas lights, holding it up so it could get a better view and enjoying the feel of the soft, furry tail like a living thing against her hand and face.
She does not know when or how the squirrel (or was it a skunk?) disappeared. Perhaps when she left for college, she looked on it with the disdain of youth and threw it out, along with other things that she would now pay dearly to have back. Maybe her mother, thinking she’d outgrown it anyway, gave it to her young cousin when she visited. She likes to think that this is what happened, for it would have been loved and cared for a little longer. Still, she can’t help missing it, knowing there will be nothing like the magical trip with the red squirrel (or was it a skunk?) among the Christmas lights again.
There is the little baby book, earnestly begun when she was born, but never updated beyond the first round of inoculations; it’s almost as though her parents had lost interest in their newborn miracle. Taped to the inside front cover is a lock of fine baby’s hair, a curious dark blonde in color. It’s strange to her to think that this grew up on her head decades ago. It looks like it belongs to someone else, to a happier, friendlier, more beautiful child, one who could make friends instantly with a winning combination of smiles, charm, and chortles and break hearts just as quickly with carefully timed tears.
On a high shelf is the old ViewMaster, at least as old as she is, perhaps older. It is slightly cloudy with age, but the images remain three dimensional, even the two-dimensional cartoon characters. There are tours of caverns filled with stalactites (she remembers the name because they hold “tight” to the ceiling) and stalagmites. Tiny human figures — tiny humans dressed in strangely dated tourist outfits point excitedly at the artificially illuminated wonders of nature and time.
There are reels of Niagara Falls from its heyday as a honeymoon destination. It could be the same tourists from the caves peering over the rails around Goat Island as the Niagara River plunges into the gorge while the captain of the Maid of the Mist powers her to the base of the falls, cuts her motor, and lets her be repelled by the force of hundreds of thousands of gallons of plummeting water. The same tourists wearing the same tourist costumes, the standard shirts and shorts, like today’s tourist costumes, only somehow dated by the cut and the colors.
Mostly they are figures at a long or medium distance, but it is not hard to guess there are no five-year-old boys with pierced ears, mullet cuts, or tattoos among them. The children in these photos are 55 years old now, maybe even 60 or 65. Maybe some are dead, killed by drugs, alcohol, cholesterol, accidents, diseases that no one then knew about. Some are now parents and grandparents, shepherding their own sons and grandsons, daughters and granddaughters, not to Niagara Falls, which is dated like the clothes, dated and passŽ, but to Disneyland or Disney World, or Six Flags Great America, to places where the majesty and wonder of nature have been replaced, or displaced, by the excitement and thrill of artificiality, where the attractions are plastic rides and plastic people, people with fake heads and hands and feet meant to give the illusion of fantasy, but which only prevent the somehow dangerous contact of warm human flesh.
There is a painted serving tray designed for tourists to remind her that her mother’s father once visited Disneyland. He left behind the tray along with the ViewMaster reels of the California redwoods. She could spend the salary earned during a week or two to visit California again; for her grandfather, freed through widowerhood and the adulthood of his many children, his trip to the West Coast was a hard-earned, once-in-a-lifetime dream experience. Except for the reels and the tray, she doesn’t know what else may survive of his trip. He has been dead for more than 40 years, since a time she was too young to remember, and he left little of himself behind, only a few photos and no memories.
She has not traveled to many places, but she has traveled more than her grandfather could. She has souvenirs, mostly postcards and knickknacks, but they are 50 years newer and are neither quaint nor interesting. She meant to give most of them away upon her return, but there they are, 10 years and more later. She wonders if her nieces will find them someday and think them old-fashioned and intriguing. Most likely, they will glance at them and toss them as old junk.
She remembers her father when he reached the age at which hard decisions have to be made about what is important and what to keep, a point at which he kept only some clothes, a lamp, a clock, and the few necessities that the bare, incomplete human form requires for well-being and comfort. He, who had grown up poor; he, who knew that poverty was only as far away as a blip in the economy; he, who refused to throw away even rusty nails and threadbare screws — he was the one who began disposing of nearly everything he owned, everything he had acquired, with a soul-freeing abandon. He rid himself of it all — his home, his car, his tools, even most of his clothes.
When he was reduced to half a shared room in assisted living, he even gave up the one possession to which he had devoted thousands of hours, the one possession that had connected him to the world that he could not afford to travel even before his health declined — his television, which she still has and never watches.
When he died many years later, it took only a half hour to pack up his half of the room — the same amount of time it would have taken him as a boy to pack the room that he shared with one of his many brothers.
She notices that the room has become darker and colder with the coming of evening, and inside the closet is darker and colder still. In the semi-darkness she searches for something she knows is there, something that is not of the past but of the present, something that she bought for herself but never used. The box is starting to collect dust, like everything else, but inside lies something that in the dimming light still gleams, something free of all association with the past.
A few minutes later, the closet is warmer than it has ever been, warmer and wet, warmer and warmer as the gateway on the past slowly closes.