Tuesday, November 23, 2010
After coming in from a snowy parking lot, I stood in front of a bright green bin of fresh brussels sprouts, and found that I had suddenly dropped down through about thirty five years of time to the first Christmas I cooked brussels sprouts the way Julia Child taught me: with cream and chestnuts. I'm suddenly wrapped in a Boston winter: its mood envelopes me in the middle of Sobeys.
If time is a line floating within reach, stretching toward the horizon, how is it we can sometimes drop down through it? Having made that thirty-five year plummet, I easily went further, to the days in the late fifties when my father still owned his own business selling and repairing TVs. For quite a number of years, we'd keep the store open weekday evenings before Christmas in hopes that someone would come in and buy a TV set for his family in a kind of Bing Crosby gesture complete with wrapping and bow. I'm not sure anyone ever did; those evenings were filled with a desperate kind of hope we celebrated once a year with fried perch and an almond-filled pastry made for the season by our local baker. Eating among the neatly chaotic workbenches where my father repaired TV sets was a ritual whose ambivalent, celebratory mood I can suddenly and fully recover from time to time, as I did standing among the brussels sprouts. Doubtless I could have plummeted further, or even levitated to more recent Christmases if I hadn't needed to buy some fish.
I've never quite understood time travel in fiction, particularly the way characters travel to the past to change a present moment. How do they also change all the myriad historical records--from newspapers to birth certificates to paintings or photographs or letters or laws--that would be influenced by an early death, a different path, or a new scientific discovery? But I understand time travel in our daily lives. In the days since my musing among the brussels sprouts, I've been trying to catch myself out at it, trying to understand better what happens. Some moments simply seem more susceptible to the plunge, holidays particularly. Dylan Thomas knew this, writing, in A Child's Christmas in Wales: "I plunge my hands in the snow and bring out whatever I can find. In goes my hand into that wool-white bell-tongued ball of holidays resting at the rim of the carol-singing sea, and out come Mrs. Prothero and the firemen," along with a whole tumble of memories. Clockwork mice, the neighbour's polar cat, parsnip wine, and a celluloid duck that made "a most unducklike sound, a mewing moo that an ambitious cat might make who wished to be a cow."
But gorgeous summer days will also open a rift in the cloud of memory to a pair of new white sunglasses or learning to swim or a stretch of beach and the time to go with it. February, not so much. It simply doesn't seem like a very resonant time of year, which is perhaps why we've plunked Valentine's in the middle of it, trying to stir up a little resonance, a little memory and desire. Spring, certainly sets up memory echoes, particularly that first surprisingly hopeful day.
And yet. Those sunglasses that I got when I was seven, which I wear on a beach in a snapshot. My sense of being fabulously cool--an expression that wouldn't become common in our household for another five years. Or that marvelous hopeful despairing ambiguity of eating marzipan-filled pastry and licking the crumbs off my fingers. There were three other people in the shop: did any of them feel what I did? Or Thomas's "mewing moo" made by an ambitious cat. I've had seven cats and I'm not sure any of them have ambitions of the sort Thomas describes. Are we sure we have it right?
Maybe that's why we suspend our disbelief about time travel. We know how unpredictable it is: how someone hands you a fact that has been sitting on the edge of your peripheral vision and you go back one day to find it all changed. Now that I think of it, I'm not sure Julia Child ever recommended both chestnuts and cream. At least that I can check.
at 10:15 PM