Sunday, September 28, 2014
A flock of blackbirds covers the field. Two hundred maybe. Silent and still before rising, as though at the lift of some unseen maestro’s baton, into the air in one loud flap like a bleached sheet on a clothesline. I watch and listen and shiver. Blackbirds. Sign of cold weather.
Grannie said that. And every year, come fall and the first golden day in the 60s, come sycamore leaves bigger than my hand and the color of cured tobacco falling in layers in the back yard, come the rattling of peanut trailers and the drone of cotton pickers, I hear her voice. “Blackbirds. Sign o’ cold weather.”
Grannie was not a superstitious woman. Well, maybe she was: She didn’t sweep out the back door after sundown and she didn’t wash clothes on New Year’s Day. And, for some reason we never figured out, we couldn’t have fish and ice cream at the same meal. But superstition was a play thing. You could never really know. Unless you went ahead and washed clothes on New Year’s Day and you got to the end of the year and nobody in the family had died. That was, however, an experiment she was not willing to undertake.
Signs, though. Signs were different. Signs were visible, audible, tangible connections to the world. One could plant and harvest and, thus, survive by signs. One could plan and hope and, thus, survive by signs. They were gifts of knowledge. Knowledge in a world where knowledge was scarce, where television had yet to be invented, where newspapers did not get delivered, where the only book in the tin-roofed house was a Bible.
And so she woke up each morning – babies at her feet and on her hip, cast iron skillet in her hand – and looked for signs. A red sky meant bad weather was coming. Thunder in the morning meant “sailors take warning.” And blackbirds meant cold was on its way.
I’ve been told that I look like Grannie. Once I caught a glimpse of myself in a mirror in a dark room – hair pulled back tight, no makeup – and a short shallow gasp left my throat. For a second I thought I’d seen her, long dead, walking beside me. Not long after, Daddy came in from the field and walked past a room where I was standing and stopped short. “My God!” he said, this man who uses the name of the divine only with reverence. “You look just like Mama.”
But it is not just the large eyes and the straight nose, the dark hair. I look like Grannie for signs. I watch the sky, but I also watch people. I watch the birds, but I also watch the times. I listen to the wind, but I also listen to the silence, the words and the spaces between them.
What was knowledge for Grannie has become information for me and information is not scarce in my world. I press a button on my telephone and ask Siri, “What is the temperature in Abu Dhabi today?” and in less than two seconds she tells me. (The high will be 100 degrees, the low 86.) Knowledge, though, that is still the pearl of great price.
What then are they signing, the birds who rise and circle and land again in one grand apostrophe? What is the message they telegraph in the black dots and dashes of their winged code? What knowledge lies within the whispers of their folding wings?
“All your life you were only waiting for this moment to arise.”
Watching. Listening. Shivering.
Sunday, September 14, 2014
I found it in the back of a drawer. I had no idea how long it had been lying in wait.
The backs of drawers are dangerous places. There lie keys to locks I no longer wish to open and ticket stubs to movies I no longer remembering seeing or, worse, remember too well. In the far corners, worse than the mints without wrappers and the dead spiders, my fingers find souvenir matchbooks and fortunes from cookies folded like unbloomed roses. The backs of drawers are not mines; they are tombs.
And from such a tomb I pulled the disposable camera, Kodak orange, the kind I am not sure is even made anymore. The frame counter read 30. I couldn’t remember: 30 taken or 30 left to take? Did it matter? It didn’t.
Yes, the young man at Walgreen told me, the film could be developed. I would soon know what images hovered in photographic purgatory.
It is hard to remember the anticipation with which I used to drop off rolls of film, filling out the information on the thick paper envelopes: name, address, number of prints, glossy or matte. I knew where I had pointed the camera, knew what I’d hoped to capture, but had only a vague idea of what would appear on the 3½ x 5 rectangles of slick photo paper. Sometimes I could wait until I got outside the store to delve into the package, most of the time not. The instant gratification of digital photography eliminates the disappointment of shuttered eyes and crooked grins, but it also extinguishes that little flame of excitement.
Which, in this particular case, was also tinged with anxiety. I’ve lived long enough now that it was possible that there could be images on that camera I’d rather not see, faces that could evoke sadness, scenes of places that no longer exist.
That my hands did not tremble when I opened the envelope is a truth. That I checked to see if they might is also a truth.
It took a moment, but only a moment, to recognize the skeleton of a building silhouetted against a summer blue sky. Sandhill, the brick already laid around the foundation, the framing done, the windows boxed, the trusses hoisted high like a teepee. Stacks of 2x4s, a pallet of brick for the fireplace, and saw horses scattered across the yard. A faceless carpenter straddling some beams.
Twenty-four summers ago the contractor dug up already-pegged peanuts to pour the footings of the foundation. Twenty-four summers ago Adam and Kate posed on the stacks of lumber and tried to get Fritz and Ginny, the golden retrievers, to walk the plank before the steps were installed. Twenty-four summers ago you still had grandparents living and you didn’t have a cell phone and so many of the people you love now you didn’t know existed. This is what the photos whisper.
One night, when the subfloor had just been laid but no walls were raised, when the whole house was one big open stage, I climbed up and walked through each room, arms raised under a silver summer moon, and blessed the house to come. Blessed all who would enter, all who would remain. Twenty-four summers ago.
The front door is a different color now and there is a deck on the back. But the bay window still catches the sunset, the front porch the breeze. The deer still rustle through the branch when the back door opens and mockingbirds still fill the trees. Twenty-four summers have passed. She is different and yet the same.
The backs of drawers are prisons and prayer rooms, caskets and cathedrals, tombs and time machines. The backs of drawers are dangerous things.