Last night I finished reading Yann Martel's book of short fiction titled The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios. Having read his novel The Life of Pi I was ready to see what other kind of writing he did.
Each piece in this unusual collection shows the strong social conscience of an exceptional writer. The first story features a young man dying of AIDS and his close relationship with his friend. He became infected through a blood transfusion.
In the second a young Canadian university student visits Washington, D.C. and experiences the Vietnam War through an intense concert performed by a group of veterans in a theater being demolished. In the third Martell describes variations of a warden's letter of comfort to the mother of a man he has just executed. The execution is, of course, "always painless."
I identified most with the last story about a young man visiting his elderly grandmother. He is bored beyond words by her nattering about her life ... blah, blah, blah, blah .... and the objects that surround her in her home..blah, blah, blah. At the end the young man is forced to acknowledge that "My grandmother has a sort of Midas touch; every object she touches becomes eternal.... Every object in her house was infused with an indwelling psyche that spoke to her of somebody or something of her long life." It is another way of saying that if you want someone or something to stay alive, you have to keep remembering.
My little apartment is alive through the objects that surround me. On the TV stands a mantel clock with the words "Time by Tim." A student named Tim made it for me when he graduated from college. He fell in love with Shakespeare during his studies and named his first son William in recognition of the great playwright.I look at the carefully-made clock and think of Tim -- and Richard II, or was it the III?
Above the TV hangs a zinc etching of the Funk windmill that stood high on a windy hill on the outskirts of Rosenthal, in the Ukraine. My grandfather owned and operated it for several decades in the early 1900s. Daughter Joanna drew the picture. Brother-in-law Henry had it etched and mounted. I tell myself that picture represents my past, a good past, a complicated past, with war, revolution, famine, pestilence, and migration, and new beginnings woven into it.
The marble bookends on the antique stand were given to my husband at the time of his ordination in 1954 by his sister and husband, John and Susie. A whole lifetime of experiences with these friends/relatives rises to the surface when I look at the bookends. Like the grandson in Martel's story they speak to me of an event and keep friends alive.
My mother's workbasket stands in a corner. She used to keep her knitting in it. I recall sitting next to her as she sat in her easy chair, her German newspapers around her. "These are my friends," she said. She loved to read. On Sunday mornings she carried the workbasket into the bedroom. Knitting as work; on Sundays she rested.
Across from my recliner is Christine's nun's chair. When she worked as a parish nurse at a Catholic church in Chicago, she scrounged for furniture in the rectory attic for her apartment. She brought back this discarded nun's chair to Wichita when she moved here. Christine died in 2000 but her memory is very much with me, and also the image of a nun, in habit, calmly rocking in that chair with simple lines, across from me.
Son James made the coffee table in a high school woodworking class. Daughter Susan stitched the quilted wall hanging above the kitchen table. My apartment comes alive when I look around. It doesn't have things standing around, but people.
I live alone and yet I don't live alone. I live with artifacts that speak to me of events and relationships in my long life. To give these up is like giving up living people, and the reason why the elderly resist moving to one room in nursing homes. The things that gave meaning to their lives have to be left behind and that hurts. It changes milk with heavy cream into skim, watered down.