I believe we all carry time machines around in our heads. And most of these machines have faulty on-off switches. For instance, I should be writing about software. Instead, I’m back in the early 1970s when my parents drove me to Kansas City, Missouri, to visit an aunt.
She has lived in the same apartment for years. Even the light is old, glowing and fading through the slots of aluminum Venetian blinds. Handmade doilies cover every horizontal surface: table, end table and shelf. Black and white pictures hang on the wall. Color snapshots are stored under glass on top of the desk. I am parked five feet away from a black, all-steel oscillating fan. It’s the kind of fan that conjures canvas-covered biplanes banking overhead. At the same time, it makes a quiet room quieter.
Adult voices fade away, though I know the gist of what is being covered. Conversations usually involve lemonade and dead relatives. They might also include a review of old black cars, the dog that saved Mother from the snake, the farmhouse lost in the Depression, and the gout that Dad and Nixon suffered. Grandma’s health is always a topic.
We are a few years from another car trip with Mother and me up front and Grandma asleep in the back seat. That would be the trip that Mother will whisper, “Not long and she won’t be with us.” But this year, Grandma is most certainly alive. All the grandparents are. For me, death is something that happens on TV in places like Vietnam, Ohio State and, when the news isn’t on, Carson City.
Bored without my books, I trace the pattern of an ancient rug with my eye and suddenly recognize tiny swastikas in the border. That’s when I learn that Nazis didn’t just dream them up in time for World War II.
This is where I should recognize that the time machines we carry around in our heads are sometimes hard to focus. While I know her living room, I don’t really recognize my aunt. Is she the hairdresser, or the aunt who helped my mother get through nursing school in the 1940s? Grandma’s name is Garnet. Is this her sister named Ruby or the one named Opal? I’m pretty sure she is short. But then again, I think I’m pretty tall, having reached the same height as people who are 70 years older than me.
Today—this day that you and I share—I’d be glad to be the same height as I was back then, with a little old lady looking me in the eyes, offering me cookies and reminding me that the world had existed without me in it. Instead she only reminds me that, soon enough, the world will exist without me in it again, which can’t possibly be right. Maybe I’ll give Mother a call. Her time machine is always pretty accurate about these things.
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