These days I am in draft mode...everything I begin to write, except grocery lists, mostly fades off the page unfinished. Posts like From Where I Sit and Out of Grandmother's Kitchen lie in wait for reclamation, though from the first they seemed the word of the day--along with probably something else I've meant to say that's left the field now. I blame the heat, but I think it's something more pressing I can't name.
Meanwhile, searching for inspiration of the tactile sort, I drift over the surfaces in my studio (lately invaded by youngsters seeking their own inspiration), picking over pieces of rusted wire, pink silk thread, mother-of-pearl buttons, copper fragments, and dried paint and glue, also waiting.
In a box at the edge of my work table, which my father had built when we moved into our old house in Washington twenty years ago, I find the watch face and works that my Aunt Sadie had given me a few weeks ago. She took it from her jewelry drawer, saying, as she prefaces all such heritage, "And what am I going to do with this?" She means for me to take it, and I do, along with the story of how it comes to be in this box, bare and unhoused for so many years.
"It was your grandfather's gold pocket watch," she tells me, "but during the Depression they had to sell all their gold..." She doesn't remember who gave him the watch, or what the occasion, but his early history was so rich with possibilities that it could have been anyone, anywhere, whyever. He'd traveled a good bit as a young man, seeking with his father homes for their family...Italy to Argentina, finally to New York and Philadelphia where, married by then, he began his own regeneration. For an engineer, as were the men in his family, a watch like this would be an important accessory. But when the time came, it proved its worth by giving up its gold.
This is the kind of object which turns up often among my aunts' keepsakes, the kind I can never turn down. This one creates in my mind, almost the instant she hands it to me, the book I will make around it, to make up for the housing it has missed for nearly 90 years. I can practically see it finished, though I haven't even started to gather the materials. It's a book about time, and what time brings us forward and also back to.
Consider the clues in this time-in-a-box. My aunt must have barely begun school then, those desperate transactions taking place as far beyond her ken as parental discretion would allow, though even she must have known what it cost to put a meal on the table. She was the youngest of four children, and sometimes eating meant going down to their cousin Annie's farm, where other relatives gathered to help and to take nourishment in that generous place. In photographs (I hope I can dig one up...it's around here somewhere), they look happy enough to be pictured among the greens and squashes at the edge of the field. The stories of oatmeal for dinner and home lost, a good business suddenly curbed and other means invented to earn a bare living...sons having to leave school, daughters taking in piece work at night...they carry on generation by generation, so that, if only in the abstract, we understand what they endured. And, more important, how the workings of life went on anyway, sans gilt.
So this watch, still its unhoused self in its box, comes to mean all that history and more...it also comes to mean, looking forward, that we are never without the possibility of privation, even in such spoiled-rich times as these. Food on the table and a house to live in, a useful way of life, are always going to be the primary goals of our lives; everything else we believe we hunger for is needless, easily disposable. It's ironic that our mechanism for timekeeping is also a reminder that there are timeless struggles--and ways of endurance--living invisibly among us, and it's well not to forget them.