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Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Traces of Lives

Last night, February 22, 2011, I could hear the cold wind outside the little room in a house in Tacoma, Washington, where I sat writing. But in spite of the chilly dampness and threat of snow, I felt warmed by a love expressed 75 years ago, long before I was born and in a different place. In my hands I held a small diary bound in leather and filled with lined pages full of my mother's handwriting. It transported me to another February 22, in 1936.

It is late at night. There in the old house she sits in her nightgown in an upstairs bedroom, a shy and pretty eighteen-year-old girl writing in the soft glow of lamplight. Downstairs, the clock chimes. Then the ticktock, ticktock again punctuates the quiet, a human attempt to measure time. Her fountain pen scratches across the page, capturing in wet ink a mere hint of the swirling thoughts and emotions that will keep her awake this night.

"Oh! I am so happy," she writes. "Howard asked me to marry him this evening. I said yes and the result is a beautiful diamond ring." She stops to look at it again, a sparkle of promise there on her finger. Modest as it is, she imagines him working all those long, hard hours for little pay in order to save up money to buy it. One day, they will look back and remember these years that would be called "The Great Depression."

Now in what we call "the present," the diary sits on my bookshelf and calls to me on certain days to open it to the current date and read her thoughts. Why I happened to think of it last night, I don't know, but it felt as though time meant nothing.  Did she wait for this ink to dry before she closed its pages? Did she then hold it close to her heart, dreaming of the life ahead? I could feel my mother's presence. Albert Einstein said, "People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion."

All around us we see traces of other lives, left behind like the tracks of pebbles in the sand after the wave of experience withdraws. The diary holds a lock of hair. A piece of embroidery my mother never finished lies hidden in a drawer. In a box of my grandmother's recipes, I found a handwritten poem, composed as a wedding gift in 1869. The stain on a quilt, the faded photo, the high school yearbook inscription, the pressed carnation, the seashell picked up and carried home on a summer's day all connect us with other lives. But are they in "the past" or only hidden nearby, co-existing with and beside us in this illusion of time?

Two weeks ago I visited a beach where spent a lot of time in my youth, alone or not alone, to walk, think, feel, share, or simply to be present. I sat on a log with the same sun warming me as warmed me then, knowing that the finite amount of water on the Earth meant that even those molecules, or the hydrogen and oxygen of which they were made, are still here. Even the driftwood seemed not to have changed there on my special beach, and while present in the magical dimension of this place, neither had I.

Last night I looked at my father's diary too, February 22, 1939. He had written about how he and my mother "became engaged three years ago this evening." Even though their lives had changed by then, having a toddler son and another due to be born three months later, the fact that he wrote those words meant his mind, at that moment, revisited the evening of February 22, 1936. So now that they are both gone from this life, are they together somewhere, once again, young and in love?

It's snowing outside my window right now, but my mind is still on the beach. It waits for me to return, physically and spiritually. In my coat pocket I still have the agate I found there two weeks ago, an amulet I can wrap my hand around. For all I know, I spied that same agate years ago, waiting there for me in the place where it had just made traces in the sand as the wave washed by.

What trace of your life will you leave behind today? Will it be the note written to a friend, the kind deed perfomed and never forgotten, the scent of perfume in the lining of a purse, the tree planted, or the bookmark tucked in next to the unread page? Remember, that sometime on this same day of the year someone will momentarily connect with you too.

Copyright 2011 by Candace J. Brown