The ‘evocative objects’ of our lives
November 19, 2008
About six years ago both of my parents still were alive. It was July and I was back home in Michigan. Mother’s lilies bloomed along the driveway and every time I got out of the car, I’d brush against them, disturbing them just enough to scatter yellow pollen onto my jeans. Their heavy, sweet scent ” which I loved ” inevitably also made me vaguely anxious. It took me back to my early childhood, back to the three-room apartment over Kresge’s dimestore.
We lived in that apartment a mere three years, from 1950 until 1953, but that apartment never left me, nor I it. In a way, it haunted me. For years, my dreams would take me back to a partially lit Main Street, the streetlights casting dark shadows in entryways, and I, my heart pounding madly, running from something or someone, might or might not reach our apartment’s door.
Even decades later, here in Nevada, I would find myself as if turning pages in a photo album, going back to that apartment, back to the horsehair couch, the $20 upright piano, the cockroaches that scattered in the silverware drawer when the light was turned on in the kitchen.
Sometime during the 1980s the owner of the building shut down the apartments. He boarded up the windows, including our three that looked onto the alley below, and for good measure, tore down the back stairs where I used to sit on summer days reading and eating an apple. Only then did I realize that I had always planned to revisit those three rooms. Why, I berated myself, hadn’t I done it? Now that it was too late. I sorrowed, I kicked myself, I drove by it like a lovesick teenager every time I was back home. All to no avail.
But that July six years ago, in the course of talking about the apartment with my good friend Holly, she simply said, “If you want to see your old apartment again, let’s just go and see it.” Paying no attention to why I thought it wasn’t possible, Holly optimistically armed us with flashlights and cameras, and we drove downtown.
We told my story to the lawyers who now have offices on the ground floor of “my” old building, and they kindly showed us to an old, dusty staircase that led upstairs.
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As soon as we got to the top of the stairs, I recognized where we were: In the apartment across the hall from ours, the one inhabited by the man who always wore a white T-shirt, sat by the window, and smoked Chesterfield cigarettes. With a wildly beating heart, I groped my way into the corridor and panned my flashlight down the long hall. It looked the same, only sad and neglected, the wood floor scratched and dull. A screen door hung open on our apartment, as if someone had been in a great hurry to leave. As I turned the doorknob on the main door, it came out of its socket and dropped into my hand. It seemed to me I had seen myself opening this door in long-ago dreams, and for a moment I expected to see a tableau of our former lives: Mother at age 37 making meatloaf in the kitchen; my baby brother sitting on the floor watching her, and father relaxed on the sofa watching me sit ramrod straight as I practiced the piano.
A thread of daylight shone around the boarded living room window and I felt as if I were in the murky darkness of the sunken ship Titanic. Our years in the apartment had been painted over, though I recognized the large roses on the worn and faded linoleum. I shouldn’t have been surprised by the dinginess, the peeling paint, the years of tenants after us, but I was. If I could have, I would have set myself to cleaning, to restoring what had once seemed wonderfully permanent, beautiful, and mine.
Holly and I walked through all the apartments, the former dentist’s office, the photographer’s, as if through a cemetery. It was all familiar and dear. Holly suggested I remove the number 7 from my old door and keep it and the doorknob, too, and I did.
Afterward back at my parents’ house, I described everything I had seen and felt. They listened with interest, but were unmoved, and I knew then exactly how separate my life was from theirs. Those three years became part of my spine, my very backbone. Yet for them, those years were a kind of way station, a time they were worried about money, health, and their marriage, and they were more than glad to leave the apartment and move on.
The doorknob, rust flaking in its grooves, and the number 7, curvy and graceful, with three tiny holes for hammering in finely made nails, are “evocative objects” for me. As Sherry Turkle, professor at MIT defines the term, any object which becomes a part of our inner life is evocative. Turkle has written an entire book on the subject, but for me it comes down to this: Every time I touch my old doorknob or the number 7, I am in touch with the young, anxious, eager-to-be-American child I was. Mysteriously, these two objects embody the person I struggled blindly to become.
– Ursula Carlson, Ph.D., teaches writing and literature at Western Nevada College.