Standing dead center in his little living room, he surveyed the photographs that covered the walls around him and every available surface space, pictures of a happy couple, all of them: him with his arm around her, her hugging him around the waist, holding hands, raising hands, waving, laughing, against backgrounds of palms and giant conifers, lakes and streams, resort hotels, mountains, prairie flowers, beaches, snowy woods, cathedrals, monuments, suburban backyards, cars. Some of the photos lay loosely, unframed, on the coffee table in front of the couch, on the two end tables, on the mantle; others stood upright in Plexiglas frames, in wooden frames, in metal frames and foldout frames. More hung on the walls in single, ornate frames, in square and oval frames, in large plastic frames with cutouts for six, eight, even ten photos. A large album lay open on the carpet in front of the wing-backed chair, half a dozen photos crammed into the transparent sleeves on each of the exposed pages. And there were more on the dining room walls and the built-in buffet, on his desk in what used to be her sewing room where he sat to write checks or do nothing at all, on the bedroom dresser and the nightstands bracketing the bed, even on the kitchen and bathroom walls. There must, he thought, shrugging himself into his heavy gray coat, be thousands.
I knew that was what he was thinking because on mornings like that, when he was heading out to work and I was bundling up for a cold wait on the corner for the school bus, he often said it aloud.
“There must be thousands,” he mumbled that day—as he did so often—to the photo-clotted room while he shrugged that drab wool weight up onto his shoulders, not even aware that I was standing in the kitchen doorway wrapping my face to the eyes with her red cashmere scarf that I so loved the smooth, soothing feel of. In fact, there were exactly seven hundred and fifty-five. I remembered the number so precisely not just because I had counted them all myself one lonely, rainy, weekend that very fall—room by room, then adding up the grand total—but because it was the same as the record-setting number of home runs Hank Aaron had ended his career with six years earlier, 1976, the same year she died.
I was balancing on a point in time so infinitesimal as to be barely there at all, and yet it was at just that precarious instant that these things came strangely together. It was the fleeting apex of the winter of my brief obsession with collecting baseball cards, though I can still recall with considerable (if untested) exactitude the poses of some of my favorite players, the grim faces of serious men working hard at establishing their momentary presence in a difficult, demanding world.
I also remember trying on that overcoat of his once that same winter, another morning not unlike this one I have just been recalling, when I was fooling around waiting to go out the front door with him. I had taken it out of the hall closet—one of my regular, pathetic attempts to try to make his life a little easier—and laid it across the back of the couch, fingering its heavy wool. I didn’t understand why he wore it to work every day all winter long, why he wanted to put on that enormous gray weight. A bright blue down jacket, the manufacturer’s tags still dangling from its collar and sleeves, had hung in that same closet all those wintry years, but he wouldn’t wear it. And it wasn’t as if he had to wear a sport jacket or suit under his coat, only the white shirt with the thin red stripes that everyone at Ace Hardware wore.
He was slow coming downstairs that morning, though, so finally, mostly just killing time, I suppose, I hauled it back up off the couch and burrowed my way into it. It was much too large, of course, my thin arms lost in the dark, slippery caverns of its wide sleeves, but what I remember most was its weight, its huge, sad, gray weight. I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to wear such a thing every day…any day. It was like dredging into the musty center of a mountain of soft gray rock, rock as ancient and sad as the world itself. It was exactly like him.
I’m not in any of those photographs, all of which date from their mutual twenties, the time before I was. It would be easy to make the assumption that that was a more idyllic time for them, before the obligations of parenthood turned the camera’s eye on me instead of on themselves. And I do have some recollections of his wallet, her purse, full of images of my infancy and my first years, often whipped out in public places to my childish embarrassment, as well as a fat blue album devoted entirely to the visual record of the early stages of my growth. But don’t let my ability to flash these crisp Kodachrome slides from my third year, or even my second, up on the screen of memory surprise you. This is what I am best at. It is what I do. I am a professional. Time is…nothing to me.
Picture me there then, as I sometimes do, in the midst of their life. I don’t recall that they were anything less than delighted with each other through what I experienced of their thirties, either. Obviously they—we—didn’t travel as much as those photos indicated they once did; I presume I was as much a financial as a practical limitation on life as they had lived it before my arrival. But what I recall of their mostly stay-at-home life was easy and uncontentious, and if there is one dominant sound that echoes to me through the rooms of my earliest years, it is the sound of their laughter, sometimes from behind closed doors.
He was thirty-nine years old that winter of my remembering, and I was nine, which makes our ages easy to keep track of. I remember the roughness of his beard when he clutched me to him, as he still frequently did, though I felt I’d grown too old to be hugged like that. He didn’t shave as regularly as he should have—as he once did. Now I’m the age he was then, and he—he would have been seventy next year. What I cannot picture, oddly enough, given how clearly I can see us those winter mornings, see those walls almost papered with photographs, is what it was like to be me back then, to be nine. I never had a sense of myself as being nine. I was just a kid. There are no photos. I don’t recall ever even seeing a camera around the house. All I know is that in spite of the bright, sharp pictures I carry within me, if I were asked what it was like to be four, or what it was like to be seven, I’d be at just as much of a total loss. Likewise for thirty-nine. I’m just an adult now, I suppose, like I was just a kid then, but here too I’m at a loss. I do this or I do that, adult things I guess we would call them—work, pay bills, clean my apartment, pick up the dry cleaning, drive a car, lose a few hours in a darkened movie theater—but these are the same things I was doing ten years ago, the same things I expect I’ll be doing ten years from now. Twenty. Probably not thirty.
If you’ve been paying attention just now, you must be aware that we cannot be where we are yet. Simple arithmetic should have informed you that the time we need to have arrived at, in order to be here in my thirty-ninth year, has not yet come to be. Still, here we are: I am a single, thirty-nine-year-old male, living alone in the rented lower half of a gray stucco duplex constructed in the middle of the last century. My weekdays I spend in a large, windowless room in the subbasement of the Historical Society, falling ever further behind in my attempt to catalog the thousands of old photographs that flicker across my worktable each month from the devoted citizenry of our state, who seem determined to make sure that nothing shall go unnoticed and unrecorded. Weekends like this, I often find myself still staring at old photographs.
How can this be? How have we managed to fling ourselves over the crest of the millennium so easily and to go sliding down another decade and more besides? There are no time machines here. Last time we looked around it was 1982 and I was immobilized inside the grief-stricken tonnage of that massive gray coat. Go ahead and look back, check it out if you doubt me. But I am a professional at this sort of thing, remember, at dating and recording; I have my standards, as well as the ethical commitment to accuracy that my job requires: that’s the way it was, that’s the way it will always be. That’s how time rolls along. One moment you’re perched on an impossible spot along the time line—a mere point, which, if I recall my geometry correctly, has no dimensions at all—and the next moment, of course, you’re somewhere else, further along that line. The one dimensional line, right? Here with me, in fact, in this year of 2012, which you will be happy to know is not a bad year, as years go.
I just want you to see, first of all, how easy this is, this slippage through time, what a frail, airless thing time is, how it passes through us like certain cosmic rays, its very presence, the great changes it’s slowly wringing out of our damp bodies, undetected as we go about our daily doings.
Oh, a few things have changed, but not so much as you might think. None of those prophecies you read about annually in Weekly World News have come to pass, nor any of Nostradamus’s famously cataclysmic forecasts, nor, to the great dismay of multitudes left stranded on their mostly metaphorical mountaintops, any of the frightful expectations of the world’s millennial sects. Life goes on pretty much as before; the technologies, like the miseries, continue to multiply; you’ll have no trouble at all finding your way around. Why don’t you make yourself comfortable.
Uncle Marv used to call every week or so those years, long distance from Boise where he did roofing and siding. If my father answered, what I mostly heard was stuff like “Fine” and “No problem” and then again “Fine, really.” If I answered, it was like being called to the front of the room by my English teacher for a grilling on why I hadn’t finished the assigned reading, turned in my book report.
“So tell me the truth, kid,” he’d say, “how is he?”
“About the same,” was my stock answer.
“He needs to get out more.”
What was I supposed to do about that? I was just a kid. “We’re going fishing this summer,” I’d tell him.
“No no no no.” I could hear his voice rising. “I mean out. Out. Regularly, you know what I mean?”
I suppose I did, but all I could ever think of to say was, “He goes to work every day.” Even then, I knew that wasn’t what Marvin was after.
Then I suppose he’d feel bad about almost yelling at me and say, “Geez, kid, I wish I could be there to help.”
And “help” was the key word, because I understood that that obviously was what I wasn’t doing. It got so I was feeling guilty every time I picked up the phone and heard his voice, but all my father ever said, after I’d passed the phone over to him and he and Uncle Marv had had their same little conversation, was, “Did you and your uncle have a nice talk?”
When my father turned fifty-one—a few months after I’d turned twenty-one, obviously—he invited me out to dinner.
“Wear your tie,” he told me on the phone.
He knew I only had one; it sported a caricature of Henry Aaron, his big head atop a miniature body wielding an enormous fat bat. No one asked me why I wore it because I never did. I was living in the dorm that spring, and hating it, but I’d moved out of the house to give my father some of the freedom that in my proto-adult way I’d decided he needed, though as far as I could tell he wasn’t taking much advantage of it. He was a good-looking man, tall and lean, his dark hair and the short-cropped beard he wore by then only lightly touched with gray. My roommate’s divorced mother, probably not a bad-looking woman herself behind all that makeup, always asked about him when she came to visit Todd, even though she’d only seen him once, during parents’ weekend our freshman year. But if he was dating anyone, you couldn’t prove it by me. Anyway, I borrowed one of Todd’s ties just to surprise him, in spite of the price I was warned I’d have to come up with if I spilled anything on it. Then, for his birthday present, I went out and bought a new one, because I knew that the only ties hanging in his closet dated back to the seventies.
“I thought I was the one who was supposed to take you out for dinner on your birthday,” I said as soon as we were seated. I was still feeling guilty about not having made a big event out of his fiftieth last year, but I didn’t know much about doing things like that—we didn’t have parties at my house—and the fact was I wouldn’t have known who to invite anyway. The relatives were few and far away. I didn’t know who his friends were. I didn’t know if he had any real friends. I couldn’t remember when there’d been anyone invited into the house besides my own friends.
“No,” he told me, “I’m the one with something to celebrate.”
Well, he was, so I handed him his gift-wrapped tie and wished him happy birthday again and started to open this enormous menu they give you at Morton’s, but before the sticker shock began to register on me, his hand was arcing across the table, levering my menu back down on top of what I would eventually grow up to learn was called the charger. Still just a plate to me.
“No,” he said again, “it’s more than that. Listen.” But he was unwrapping the tie by then and whistling over it and holding it up to show how well it went with his old blue blazer, as I knew it would, having seen it displayed just like that in the last issue of my roommate’s subscription to GQ and thinking that if I ever had another tie, that’s the one I would want.
“Well,” he said quietly, “I guess I’ll even get to wear it now.”
“Hey,” I said, “why not?”
“Because—” and he paused to give the waiter, a huge, beef-fed man who I somehow hadn’t even seen return, our drink orders, a beer for me because that’s what I figured he’d order too, but then he surprised me by asking for a vodka martini. “Because,” he resumed, “ I’m the first male in our family to live past my fiftieth year.”
I hadn’t ever thought about it: Uncle Marvin had died in far-off Idaho when I was in my early teens; my grandfathers I hadn’t known at all; he told me about the great-grandfathers and likewise some of the women. “What’s this about?”
“I thought you ought to know,” tapping his chest with his closed hand. “Your mother knew. The heart. Always the heart.”
We sat there on that Tuesday night with the restaurant practically empty except for a few tables of businessmen and drank our drinks and ate our three-finger-thick marbled steaks and baked potatoes as long as your forearm and chocolate mousse mounded with whipped cream, at a cost I couldn’t bear to think about even while I was wondering if he could afford it. I was being careful not to drip fat or sour cream or chocolate on my roommate’s Christian Dior tie. I glanced around from time to time in the expectation that one of those attractive young women in a tight-fitting red vest and short black skirt would be coming by with a huge flash camera asking if we wanted our picture taken, but apparently it wasn’t that kind of restaurant. Meanwhile, my father talked about congenital heart disease and his regular checkups and my need to take good care of myself, now and for the rest of my life, because he could assure me I wasn’t going to be young and able to take good health for granted forever. Or eat meals like this with any frequency. Not in this family.
“Beating the odds,” was what he called it. I must have heard that phrase twenty times before we were finished with our coffee. It was, I began to understand, what his life was all about these days: “Beating the odds.”
I’m sorry if spinning back to the midnineties like that, right after dragging you into the future, results in a touch of vertigo; time can be dizzying enough even if you’re just trying to walk that straight, one-dimensional line through it. It is, as you doubtless know by now, very slippery stuff, and you constantly have to watch your step. One moment you’re here, next…how did that happen? That’s what it is about photographs, I think: they’re a wonder of sorts, the way they can fix us in time. Look, here I am at three months old, at six months. It says so right here: my name and age and the date, in someone’s (hers, I presume) fine-lined, black-ink printing on the back of picture after picture in that big blue album I still have, the one that suddenly tumbles into a batch of unfilled pages after my third birthday party, which I can see here only includes me and two other tykes, neither of whom is identified. Time erases as well as records. I even find it hard to believe that the pink, scrunched up little face hovering over this birthday cake here has anything to do with me, but I have no reason to doubt what it says on the back of these photos. They fix me at those moments in time just as all those photos that used to clog the very pores of my father’s house fixed him in the time he wanted to be in.
Again, I only want you to understand how easy it is, the way we slip through time. Anyone can do it. Everyone does.
In spite of everything, see—in spite of my very presence, my sniffles, my appetite, my need for new shoes—he could roll back the clock to a time before I was, a time where he most wanted to be. So do you wonder any longer, then, at my ability to slide us ahead on the same line, to a time when he no longer is? This mastery of time seems to run in the family, though like I say, it’s no great accomplishment. With a little practice, you, too…
But that’s not to suggest that we—either of us, my father or myself—could ever control what happens in time. Only our own sad movement through it, in the same way you can. Stay with me here a bit as I shuffle around in it for a little while longer; I’ll try to make it worth your while. Then you can return—or go on—to the time of your own choice.
By the time I was getting all that advice on beating the odds, I was already well acquainted with the medical profession. Although I’d somehow evaded all the usual childhood diseases—mumps and chicken pox are among my greatest concerns these days—I broke bones as frequently as other kids got new clothes. I broke my arm sailing off a park swing and thudding into one of the railroad ties that enclosed the sandy play area. I broke two fingers on my left hand soaring off a diving board and onto a swimmer below. I broke my wrist scrambling down a flight of stairs in grade school, my nose against the seat in front of me when the school bus driver slammed on the brakes to avoid hitting a dog (or so he claimed), my leg in high school colliding with the center fielder as we both chased a long fly ball, three ribs wiping out on a ski slope, and a whole cluster of tiny bones in my foot when one of the union guys more or less deliberately dropped a bundle of shingles on it and put an end to my summer construction job. I’ve often thought that paleontologists examining my bones centuries from now would conclude I had been some sort of warrior, though in fact I’m a peaceable man, much like my father, and have never been in a physical fight in my life.
But doctors: not counting the frequent flyer miles I was accumulating in the emergency room and the follow-up exams, plus the minor annual ritual of preschool checkups my classmates and I alike went through, I was also hauled in twice a year, fall and spring, for complete physicals. As often as not, memory has me hobbling into the examining room on crutches or with my arm in a sling, but I always left with the doctor patting me on the back and telling me I’d gotten an A or an A plus and my father, who never failed to accompany me, even when I was in college, thanking the doctor and shaking his hand but looking as glum as he had when we came in, a high tide of worry lines rolling in across his forehead.
Until that birthday dinner, I had no idea what that had all been about, and even then I wasn’t aware of how much out-of-pocket all that medical attention had cost him because his health insurance only covered one annual physical. I just went along with it, as I pretty much did with everything, from our unchanging home decor and the new used bottom-of-the-line Chevy he purchased every four years to our third week in July fishing trip and the regular weekly cycle of meals. He kept a fading daily dinner schedule, handwritten on an Ace Hardware inventory form, posted on the refrigerator door, though why he needed it I could never figure out, every Tuesday spaghetti with meat sauce being exactly the same as every other Tuesday spaghetti with meat sauce. The only change that occurred as I got older was my own added responsibility for a few of those predetermined and unimaginative meals, each of which he had been making all those years with a hard set around his mouth that barely made it possible for me to converse with him when I tried to keep him company in the kitchen. But he was proud of me when, around age twelve or so, I started preparing a few of those meals myself.
It wasn’t hard, having watched him all those years, to dump half a can of sauerkraut over a few pork chops and stick them in the oven, but he’d walk into the kitchen when he got home from work and see me standing there playing chef and say, “Well, look at you.”
I didn’t know where to look.
You cannot imagine yourself into another person’s life. It is no more possible than imagining yourself into the life of a dog or a potato. Yes, I understand that writers of fiction do it all the time, but that’s not the same. They invent the whole character from the inside out—or perhaps from the outside in, I have no real grasp of how they go about it—so whatever they want to put there, they can put there, without any concern for what it’s really like in there. What it’s really like in there is simply whatever they say it’s like in there. You can’t do that with real people.
In July of the summer between seventh and eighth grade, my father abruptly cancelled the fishing trip we’d gone on together every summer since…since we’d been just the two of us together. He offered me neither warning nor explanation and in fact only informed me about his change in plans one evening a couple of days before our scheduled Sunday departure. I was down in the basement, at the shabby old workbench set against the back wall and littered with tools and bits of little projects he hadn’t touched in years, oiling the identical Shakespeare reels he’d gotten us both for Christmas a couple of years ago and putting on new monofilament line. I’d had to change the bulb in the cobwebbed fixture dangling from the ceiling behind me, and the forty watt bulb that was all I could find gave me barely enough light to work by, especially since it left me standing in my own shadow. His shadow suddenly hanging over me pretty much closed down the shop.
“Don’t bother,” he said. “We’re not going.”
I laid down the reel I was working on—his—and wanted to know why.
“I just can’t,” he said. And then he lowered his voice and repeated himself: “I just can’t.”
The only thing I could figure was that Ace must have changed his vacation schedule, but he just shook his head when I asked him about that and said what he’d already said one more time and then one more time again: “I can’t. I just can’t.” And then he slid away into the thicker shadows leading over to the staircase, and I heard his slow footsteps on the wooden stairs, and that was that.
I stayed down there another hour or more cleaning up. I finished working on the reels and tucked them away in the big green tackle box and put it up on the shelf above the bench. I picked up each of the tools scattered along the wide bench and wiped them off one at a time, slowly, with an oily shop rag I found there, and hung them on the pegboard behind the bench where they exactly matched the white outlines he’d painted for them before I was old enough to know: outlines of needle-nosed pliers and claw hammers and socket wrenches and all those types and sizes of screwdrivers. I wiped off the bench itself, gathering all the little scraps of wood and metal on it into a small pile I then scooped up with the dirty shop rag. Then I reached up to switch off the overhead bulb, and with only the light coming down the stairwell to guide me I took the bundled-up rag upstairs with me and dumped it into the garbage basket under the kitchen sink and washed my hands with dish soap and dried them on a dish towel and went upstairs to bed.
I passed him in the living room on the way up, sitting in the big blue wing-back chair, but he didn’t look at me. He wasn’t looking at all the photographs surrounding him on every wall and every piece of furniture either. He wasn’t looking at anything.
Because he was so pleased with himself for having beaten the odds, he didn’t have a bad time of it, dying. The doctors managed his pain, the visiting county nurses managed the practical side of things, and every evening when I came over after work to spend a little time with him he managed to remind me how he’d outlived them all, down both the maternal and paternal lines. “Think about it,” he’d say, ticking off one by one the long lists of family, back to his mother’s father’s father, and the ages at which each had died, pathetically young by both current standards of longevity and his own achievement. Mostly, he wanted me to see the latter as holding out better promise for me than the fear he’d lived most of his life with, though in fact his harping on the subject of mortality had rather the opposite effect on me. But there was some gloating, too, for which I couldn’t blame him, though it was disturbing to see the effort it took him, at the end, to get out those few words about having made it over the hill that he’d never expected to have climbed, into the new century and then some.
Unfamiliar territory for you, I know, but it can’t be helped. It was unfamiliar territory for him, too, as he kept pointing out. And consider how it must be for me as well: looking back to a time you haven’t even gotten to yet: my past—and his—still your future. Time, I tell you, provides some odd perspectives.
By the time you get there he will have long since sold the house, for a price more than double what they’d originally paid for it, a sum that will have enabled him to purchase a small, newer condo in an area where he will be able to walk to almost everything he needs: grocery store, drug store, bank, bakery, video rental, half a dozen restaurants ranging from fast food to fine, even his dentist’s office. He will have reduced his photographic display to maybe a dozen pictures, all remounted in shiny contemporary frames befitting his new surroundings: one in the tiny entrance hall and the rest on his bedroom dresser. He will have a brand-new German car that will last him the rest of his life and even, for a far briefer time, a woman friend his own age with strikingly good looks and a great many highly neurotic adult children whose demands on her life and time will eventually close the door to him on the possibility of a genuine romantic interlude.
Time, as they used to say in those ancient newsreels that we also have in our archives here, marches on.
But what I am trying to say here is: We do not have to stay in lock step with it.
I realized even as a teenager that he wasn’t a natural at the hardware business. It was a suburban store, not far from where we lived. I went in with him sometimes on Saturdays, if he didn’t have the job of opening at eight, because Musicland, where I could spend hours without buying anything, was just across the street. He’d come to fetch me at lunchtime, then, and we’d walk to the strip mall nearby for a sub or a pizza, and often, if none of my friends showed up at the music store in the afternoon, I’d come back to Ace for a while just to hang around. I’d watch him mix paints and weigh bags of tenpenny nails, and I’d see the impatience on the faces of customers who couldn’t grasp what was taking him so long to do these simple things. I’d sit on a five-gallon can of roofing tar in the back room while he replaced torn window screening, pained by the clumsy, inefficient way he went about it, though in the end he always got the job done neatly enough. And I’d see the confusion that wrinkled his face when a customer asked his advice on applying garden pesticides or rewiring a lighting fixture, and how quickly he’d look around for one of the other employees to bail him out.
As I got older and became more aware of some of the ways the world operates, I suffered increasing anxiety that he’d lose his job and we’d lose the house, and I had no idea what would become of us then. I didn’t know what else he could do. Images of the grizzled old men I’d seen hanging around outside the Mission we’d sometimes drive past downtown took up permanent residence in my mind; bored nearly to sleep in my American History class, I couldn’t help picturing him among them, hunkering back against a soot-stained concrete block wall, squeezing the neck of a paper bag in his hand. But it never happened. He was a hard worker, as sturdy and reliable as the store brand tools he sold, and I imagine diligence made up for much of what he lacked in aptitude, though I can’t imagine that his generally unsmiling demeanor could have endeared him to either his boss or his customers.
This glum, hardworking self I knew firsthand from the once-a-month, intensive, Sunday house cleaning campaigns he marshalled us on: the satisfied but cheerless nods with which he acknowledged our conquest of bathroom and kitchen; the unspoken authority with which he claimed the privilege of dusting the picture frames, a task he never completed till long after I had been dismissed with a wave of dirty white dust rag, like a flag of surrender, and the corner of a smile.
He was not an unintelligent man, either. Our dinner table conversation mostly consisted of a discussion of current events, and to me he seemed widely informed, especially about national and international politics. There was always a pile of thick library books beside his bed, his reading glasses propped on top of them. He went over my homework with the same concentration he focused on cleaning the oven and was as meticulous as my teachers on matters of grammar and the mysteries of quadratic equations. What I concluded, standing over his grave site, was either that he had simply not found the right time and place for the person he was to be or that he had, in fact, once found such a time and place, and then when it was all taken from him had never afterwards really known, or perhaps even cared, where or when or how to be, though he knew he had some responsibilities—or at least one—to be somewhere.
So picture this if you can: the one place in your life where, if you had the choice, you would most like to be. “Place” is the wrong word of course, when what we’re really talking about is time, but you can see how we always try to take the slippery, the intangible, the mysterious and almost unimaginable fourth dimension, and give it a grounding in three-dimensional solidity. You cannot in reality stand upon a point in time, so rapidly does it slide out from under you, moving right ahead on its own, with or without you. But even as you’re carried along on that moving sidewalk of time, you can imagine yourself elsewhere, in another time, a time where you have been or might be. If you want, you can paper the walls around you with images of that time where you long to be, and if you can achieve the right mindset perhaps those images will help you to get there. If not, perhaps, like my father, you will take what pleasure you can from clambering over the hurdles of the years, one after another, taking some satisfaction that with each one you have outlived your former self by just so much—that, like you and I here, you have beaten the odds—but withdrawing a little more from the world as you pause to take your rest after each one.
On my lunch breaks I sometimes stroll through the large areas of our building that are open to the public, high-ceilinged rooms that often echo with chattering groups of schoolchildren. Some of the exhibits are permanent, some will have changed from my last time through, but little of this is directly related to my own work at the Society, two floors below ground where the public never goes, so I am just another tourist here. I can follow a line of wriggling first graders into an accurately reconstructed one-room schoolhouse or drift off on my own to a late nineteenth century logging camp, for whose informational panels I have in fact managed to glean some unique photographs from our archives. Time holds still for us here, as of course it never really does, and lets us wander around in it, examine it close-up—these smooth-handled axes, polished by the hands of woodsmen long dead, and enormous two-man saws, this cook wagon—even read about it, pause to pour over pictures of it: that was then.
And this is now. We are come where perhaps neither you nor I wanted to be. My father is a year dead. I have just this week been to oversee the installation of his headstone. He had once mentioned a preference for being cremated, but I didn’t have that done. I don’t know why. His whole collection of photographs, with the exception of that one blue album of my childhood which I have recently opened for you, has been boxed up, with expert professional care, of course, and stored in the basement of my duplex. I fear that conditions down there are not the best—it is a basement, after all, in an old building, whose cement block walls weep in rainy weather—but what am I to do: there are far too many boxes to keep in the apartment itself, and I am by no means prepared to relinquish them to this institution. As it is, I already spend too much of my time here discouraging people from attempting to make us the repository of their personal life and times.
Meanwhile the new imaging techniques—yes, as I’ve said, a few things have changed, but it’s nothing you wouldn’t catch on to quickly—multiply such collections at a frightening pace, quite out of control. And quite inexpensively, too. There is no practical reason these days why anyone couldn’t have a complete visual record of everything in his life, though why one would want to do so is another question altogether. Naturally, as my father’s son I can see the value of a certain amount of it. My question with time, though, and the images that fix it for us, is not my father’s How far can you go, or Can you beat the odds, but How far do you want to go. And you can never imagine yourself into another person’s life deeply enough to have any real sense of how they would answer that, not even the person you have known best all of your life. You’re lucky if you can know that for yourself.