Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Rekindling the Bonfires of the Innocent Past

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Rekindling the Bonfires of the Innocent Past

Article excerpt

THE scene could well have been a subject for still-life study for the discerning artist. The late-afternoon sun pouring through the skylight fell in golden patches upon the wooden floorboards of the attic, illuminating Grandma's old mementos. A scattering of vintage British-India coins, embossed with King George profiles, gleamed silver. Inside a blue-velvet case lay a carved sandalwood elephant. An open tin box overflowed with pieces of unworked textile - silks in yellow and turquoise, chiffons, and rough cuts of cotton. Completing this curious assortment was an old leather-bound diary and a pocketwatch (the kind Mahatma Gandhi wore in the 1930s) with its glass cracked down the middle.

Grandma held the sculpted pachyderm to the mellow light. "A gift to your grandpa when he was in Ceylon," she announced, and went on to elaborate, telling me of the time my grandfather won a tough timber contract on the island and of her visit to the wooded, sea-fringed mountains where they were felling the teaks.

Grandpa's pocketwatch released a lighter, more intimate memory. The watch had stopped during a moonlit river cruise making the experience "timeless," as Grandma said with a laugh.

I remembered the coins. Years ago (when I was in my early teens), Grandma had presented me identical ones. Unaware of their worth, I had bartered them for some things of childhood fancy.

These seemingly inconsequential objects, stored away in the lonely attic among the big chests and disused furniture, are Grandma's most precious possessions. She comes to them in her chosen hours, in deep, intimate moments when things gone by are cherished, their tangible need felt. Then her innocuous collection begins to provide silent companionship, standing surrogate presence for the past.

It was a pleasant October afternoon. I had come home early from work, and we were sitting in the attic, sharing fleeting moments before the others returned and the house filled with domestic clatter. Though Grandma and I lived under the same roof, part of an extended family in the large rambling house my grandfather built, we didn't often have time together, exclusively to ourselves. So it was with a feeling of surprise that I saw changes time had etched upon her face. I hadn't noticed them before, the deepened lines, the hair completely silver.... With painful abruptness I realized that I was aware of Grandma in a rather complacent manner, like passing landmarks I took for granted on the regular route to work. Somewhere I had missed out on her. I suspect it happened when I entered the portals of hard competitive adulthood, a time of futuristic preoccupations and career graphs. As I perceived my grandmother anew in the seclusion of the attic, the static unchanging image of her I had carried for so long began to flicker and move again. …

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