Lasting Impressions

When I was fourteen, and just beginning to show the worst symptoms of bipolar depression, I experienced the death of someone close to me for the first time.

I still remember when my mother came into my room to tell me Nana (my mother’s mother) had died, from pneumonia she had contracted because the steroids she needed to be on to keep her autoimmune disorders (including lupus, among other things) in remission, had destroyed her immune system.  It was also the first time I truly understood the meaning of the phrase, “damned if you do, damned if you don’t,” as ultimately, it was the medications that kept her alive that killed her.

My memory of that event is different than most of the memories before that, in that I remember seeing myself from the door to my room, as my mom came in and told me the news, that Nana had died, and watching myself shrink away from my mother and curl up around the scruffy and worn long-eared rabbit that Nana had given me a decade before then.  It was then I began to understand grief (for someone else, I had dealt with a different kind of grief secretly on an ongoing basis for the last few years at that point following several severe sexual brutalizations), this grief seemed more acute than any feeling I’d ever experienced before.  The grief was so strong, that I feel it now still, in my eyes welling up with tears as I recall, in the feeling like a ball of iron is weighing down my gut, pulling on the bottom of my rib cage…

I started a photography class at a local college a few weeks ago, and instead of checking out a camera from the school a few days at a time, I remembered a recent offer from my mom for her to give me a 35mm camera.  I thought she was referring to the Canon that mom had used in college herself and that, when I was deemed responsible enough with the almost-disposable cheap snapshot camera I’d been given around age 5 when I showed interest in shooting pictures, I was allowed to borrow mom’s hallowed Canon.

The idea excited me.  This whole class excites me, really.  It had been so long since I worked with film, I’d forgotten how thrilling it used to be to me to hoard each exposure for *just* the right moment, because each roll of film and each print had to be begged for following endless hours of chores, and every exposure was priceless.   But I digress.

I was wrong.  I went out to mom’s for dinner after talking to her, she was tickled pink that I came to visit.  As I was getting ready to go, she brought out the camera.  It wasn’t the Canon.

The camera she brought out was a mid-80’s Minolta, a nice 35mm SLR that is IDEAL for the work I’m doing for the next three quarters for the film portions of my photography classes.  As she opened the case to show me, she said the camera had been Nana’s, that Nana bought it right before she started to get really sick, and had used it on her travels to see states she’d not visited before now that she was permanently retired from the hospital where she’d been an RN for close to four decades.  Mom said that it had been sitting in storage since Nana had started getting sick in ’88, that other than two or three times mom and the other kids had taken it out to check on it, it hadn’t been handled, and that it hadn’t been used.

I’ve been using it the last couple weeks.  Ineptly, because it’s been a little over two decades since I last shot film, but I’m anxiously awaiting my shot at checking out a canister and developing this first roll tomorrow.  Digressing again…

Tonight, just a short while ago, I went to clean off the dust that has been on the lens this whole time with a few cotton swabs and some rubbing alcohol, since I’d accidentally touched the surface today and left a fingerprint.  I swabbed the surface gently, switching swabs as soon as they started to leave lint behind.  When it seemed as clean as it would get, and it dried, I held it to the light to check the job I’d done.  Despite my work, a fingerprint still clearly reflected.

What the fuck?! was my first thought – how can that be?  Until I realized, the fingerprint is on the *other side*.  It wasn’t a lens surface I’d cleaned, but only a filter left screwed on the lens to protect it.  I unscrewed the filter to clean it, and then it struck me, hard.

This was the last remaining fingerprint that Nana left behind.

I almost looked for a box to save the filter, but I’m trying to work hard on not hoarding shit anymore (and keeping this would be a step backward on a moderately serious problem I have in that direction).  I would have taken a picture, if I had the right lights necessary to show its reflection on the filter’s glass, but I don’t, and so I didn’t.  And really, it seems to me that the purpose of death for me, as someone left behind, and of grief, is to learn to let go.

And so I let go, and gently swabbed the last traces of my maternal grandmother from the only thing of hers that I still own.  I wonder who will miss me when I go, like I miss Nana now — even though she’s been gone for most of my life.

I spend a lot of time reflecting on ideas for what legacy I hope to leave behind, especially since I have no children and plan to keep it that way (for many very good reasons – a discussion for later).  What fingerprint will I leave behind for decades after my death?  And who will be there to find it?

Leaving on a Jet Plane

If you had the power to get somewhere — anywhere — where would you go right now (Writing 101, Day 2: A Room with a View)?

It is winter there now, but the temperature there is probably warmer than it is here right now on this almost-summer day.  This is the same time of year as it was when I was there, and although fourteen years of time and a few lifetimes’ worth of experiences have passed in my life, there are still a few strong sense-memories that remain in the leaky bucket full of holes that I call my memory.

  • Flying for almost 24 hours of vomit-plagued turbulence.  The flights were all full, so there wasn’t room to stretch out as had been predicted by my friend who had made the flight before, so when I disembarked in Melbourne, Australia, my legs were cramped and I was exhausted.  I was not so exhausted, however, that I did not marvel at the scent of the air coming in my rolled-down taxi window once we left the airport traffic behind.  I asked the driver why the air smelled so sweet, he responded only, “Eucalyptus trees.”  Overhead flew a flock of budgies (like sparrows do here) to land, en masse, on a eucalyptus tree near the highway, brightly colored.  Ahead rose downtown Melbourne, with skyscrapers about the same height as here in Seattle, but it seemed there were fewer of them, or maybe they were just spread farther out.  The taxi let me out in a district filled with brick-faced shops and boutiques, tucked in between two buildings was an unassuming cement five-story extended-stay suite hotel in which resided my then-boyfriend.

Other sense-memories bubble up to the surface:

  • Queen Victoria Market on Tuesday – a seemingly never-ending square of tent-roof.  I haggled for the first time in my life, quite by accident, when I put back the sport sandals I’d tried on after finding out their price – $60 Australian.  “I only have fourty,” I explained.  He quickly countered that it wouldn’t be a problem for him to take that $40 instead.  But I wasn’t about to spend the rest of the week completely broke.  He ended up taking $25 for them – at that point equating to about $13 US – for the Nike velcro-strap walking sandals (which are still functional 14 years later).  My boyfriend bought me a small gold-wrapped clear opal pendant. I bought souvenirs for me and my family – “thunder” sticks made of koa wood for percussion, boomerangs painted with elaborate dotted designs, a painted didgeridoo that I never did teach myself how to play, a plethora of beautiful postcards.  There wasn’t enough time to explore every table and nook, I spent half the day there and it wasn’t enough.  The shops in the buildings out on the boundary held further treasures, a glass studio with small delicate glass unicorn, fairy, star, and other fanciful ornaments that I knew wouldn’t survive the trip home.  Flags and kites a few doors down.  I glutted myself on the eyefuls of things I wished I had the resources in my wallet for, to take them all home.

  • Queen Victoria Beach, the sun shone brightly but the temperature was mild and balmy as it was there all week.  The rich creamy frozen yogurt cone on the walk there, the big wooden roller coaster from bygone days with a ginormous bright-painted clown’s face over the entrance.  The painters and sculptors set up on tables and blankets along the sidewalk bounding the beach.  The orange-peach color of the carved stone blocks holding the plaque announcing the name of the beach also proclaimed the cause of the color of the sand – pale orange under an unbelievably blue clear sky.  I had the beach, due to it being a workday, almost to myself.  I spent the rest of the day collecting shells, beach glass, driftwood and sand to take with me.  I was lucky, later, to discover no ban on bringing natural materials from there into the US.  The customs agents simply shook their heads to each other like I was nuts.

  • The streetcar trolleys.  I rode a few during my stay, a novelty for me.  I would have been petrified to try to drive and weave in and out among them, but the drivers downtown seemed not to care.  Drivers seemed very polite to each other in a way that just isn’t seen here.  I saw no evidence that road rage ever existed there, which boggled my mind.  Maybe it was because there was rarely even a hitch in traffic.
  • Anytime I stopped to look around to gain my bearings, someone would always seem to appear to help me find my way.  My helpers would invariably explain that all Australians go on “walkabout” at some point early in their adulthood, thus feeling a keen empathy for lost travelers.  Through them, I was pointed in the direction of all my soon-to-become-favorite attractions.
  • The botanical gardens were filled with tropical plants, larger versions of the small succulent “air plants” that we nurture in miniature here in the States, their versions sometimes dwarfed my body in comparison.  Tall palm trees and vivid exotic blooms of every color surrounded me at every turn.

  • Public art was almost everywhere.  An archway made of giant neon-color pick-up sticks, statues, other metal and stone sculptures, plaques announcing the history of this or that artfully-designed brick, stone, or wood-carved edifice abounded.  A long lush walking park extended across through downtown, along both sides of the small Yarra River.  Mosaics on the path and walls of nearby buildings, more sculptures, frequent rich red-bricked archways under bridges adorned the park, making the long walk well worthwhile.

It was the only time I’ve ever been out of the country.  I have yet to see Canada or Mexico, even though they are both much closer and in the same hemisphere.  Hopefully that will soon change.  But the trip to Melbourne resides in what remains of the lighter side of my memories, from a time when I could not have comprehended even the possibility of the darkness to follow starting a scant six years later that lasted until the end of last year.  It was a summer, or rather a week of Australian winter, of innocence, something which I am ever grateful to have experienced.