Saturday, October 24, 2009
Late at night, absorbed in writing, something wrenches me into a sharp alert. I smell smoke. I'm certain of it. But no one smokes in this house. Still, I look around, peer from the window, get up and sniff the hallways.
The smoke is only in my mind. It is attached to a decades-old memory so resolute that I not only smell smoke, but seem to catch in the corner of my eye an ephemeral outline of a tiny woman balancing a long black cigarette holder, tendrils of smoke curling into the air. Professor H. Relaxed, sweater thrown over her shoulders. With a diamond ring glittering on her smallest finger, she holds forth in the large, high-ceiling old room.
"God that's it," she would say, in a deep, distinctive, gravelled voice that gave the impression of stage more than manuscript. "You've got something there. Go deeper. Write that."
Professor H. taught expository writing. I needed a senior year elective and V. recommended her. She told us to write our non-fiction essays on subjects that moved us. Go for the simple, she said. Forget lofty, that's artificial. Comb your memories. "Give me you."
I had scribbled diaries forever, journals, I had boxes of them. I brought a few back to school from home. They were from the early years. Growing up "like a wolf in the woods." Stealing honey from the gnarled tree with bamboo sticks. Hiding in a tree under the cover of black night. All the early hurts. Watching. Listening. Taking all those notes. I was bursting with essays.
But I also loved to listen to her. She had been friends for years with Scottie Fitzgerald, the daughter of F. Scott and Zelda. She had been in the Navy and traveled the world. She loved to talk, but more than that was an excellent listener.
The Alabama she knew through Scottie's tales, channeled through the southern aristocracy of Zelda's Montgomery, was a different universe from the northern part of the state. I grew up in the Tennessee River valley, surrounded by the Appalachian foothills. Our speech patterns, mannerisms, cultures, mores, all of it, worlds apart.
And Professor H. loved that. She wanted to hear more. Always.
And I had plenty of material to work from. Faded pictures, yellowed journals, scrapbooks. Mementoes from my time working in the mental institution as a volunteer. The wooden planks patient J. drew and colored on:
So many things. Boxes my husband in years since has tried to get me to throw away. "Let's clear away the clutter," he implores. What? The clutter?
This is my life. I've winnowed and thrown away and ditched so much. I have a few small boxes, still. Precious things. I can't lose them, not yet. They still need to be remembered, written about, witnessed. These pieces of paper and wood and written word are the reasons I can conjure up the detail that brings the visions to life here. Why I still remember.
Pictures, for instance. Uncle H's farm. Where the fox hunts started out. They're gone, H., my father, and recently their younger brother died in his 90s. The dogs they raised are long gone. But here, on these pages, they are waiting for their chance to bolt into that sweet fine night, blood and hearts pumping, strong, young, free.
Because when I write their stories, those who have vanished into the ether coalesce into vibrant life one more time. For mere moments, yes. Only for moments. But in that time, their memories take on the glow of flesh and blood and life. Like the black-haired boy R.G., who a couple of years ago drove to the river where we all used to go growing up. He got out, moved around, got back into the car. He did this for several hours. And then he took a gun and killed himself. What happened? Why? I ask and no one can tell me. Because they just don't know.
So I put away the few boxes I have left. And bring them out now and then and smell smoke that isn't there and hear Professor H. who isn't really there but still she is whispering, "Yes, that's it, that is exactly it."
Because there is more to say, still. Chances for resurrection through the careful ministrations of a few who help to reconstitute them, in a manner, for a few precious moments. Through an act so simple yet spiritual when it occurs. Which snaps the lost in those moments back into the sun and wind and rain. Into the fullness like a patchwork quilt long folded and gathering dust in the shadows. Allowing them breath and the full measure of their absolute vibrance.
It is happening now. You are making it so. Because you are here, reading these words, devoting your time and your care.
These are last portraits. And sometimes, through the long missing of the lost, they are finally what they should have been all along and us with them.
Shimmering, exquisite, cherished. Loved.
And through it all, ever remembered.