After the death of my mother, I devoted long weeks to clearing my parents’ Manhattan apartment. It seemed the bitterest of times.
All the tapestried layers, the complexities of them – the charm, the humor, the remarks that burst forth ex nihilo (out of mysterious nothingness) and the condensed insights that perhaps had piled up from lives that stretched back over many centuries – all that was to be packed into several large cardboard boxes containing … personal effects!
What insights do I have in mind?
Here’s one of the insights. After the Second World War, the nations of Eastern Europe came under the control of Soviet Russia and the communist regimes it imposed. Under such regimes, religion was outlawed. Despite this prohibition, when the Polish Pope came to Warsaw, television news showed him saying the mass publicly from his hotel balcony. Under his balcony, the people of Warsaw filled the square and filled the streets beyond, as far as the eye could see. Since the Russian occupation of Poland, no one had seen anything like this. My mother and I were watching the news together.
“What do you think, mother?”
“It’s the end of communism,” she said without hesitation.
She was a few years ahead of the Sovietologists and the Cold War experts. Sometimes, it helps if you understand people.
Here’s one of the remarks. I remember my father voicing it when he was first admitted to the Maine Coast Memorial Hospital in Ellsworth, Maine. He would die a week later, though no illness was ever diagnosed.
The intelligent young physician had begun to give him oxygen.
“How do you feel?” he was asked.
“I feel REAL resuscitated.”
Later a philosopher colleague of mine who knew Wittgenstein told me, in that context, “real” means “not.” My father’s remark was funny and informative, but – like him — oblique. It was the last complete sentence I ever heard him speak.
When both my parents were gone and I was kneeling in my blue jeans on the floor of my father’s study, sobbing, placing last little items inside the remaining cardboard boxes, I came across a small sheet of paper, with one sentence penned in my father’s clear and elegant hand.
“The future is the past
entered through another door.”
Because our present time-out-of-time has blocked every one of my other pending projects, I’ve been spending these recent weeks reading through my father’s journals, which span the first three decades of his adult life.
He became at the end of his life (when he and I enjoyed an adult friendship) much more like the rather pure self that he had been at the beginning when, as a very young man, he’d just met my future mother.
All the way through, the journals will show him unpredictable, original, creative and elusive. In the middle years, he will find life desperately frustrating and will have a tremendous struggle to gain the vantage point from where he will see its significance, for himself and for others.
At a certain point, I enter the story of course. “Abigail is born” but, in the journals, she is never front and center. He is the hero and my mother is too. So what I am reading about is pre-history, which runs alongside my own for part of the track. And yet, in the strangest way, I feel that — by reading about this part of the past, I am reentering my own future —
through a different door.