Sunday, August 9, 2020

Time Flies


Time's arrow is cruel, very cruel. The very definition of relentless, don't you think? Time impaled my parents, first my mother with breast cancer at age 72, then my father at 92, finally – he had warded off many an illness until he finally said, take me off everything that is prolonging my life. Time will get me, and you, too, and then my kids, sure as shooting. Time is a relentless mother-fucker, believe me.

Not that this is a big discovery. Time is to people not as water is to fish. Fish don't know they're in water, they just swim. We, on the other hand, we all know about time all too well, even though we live our lives often ignoring it. The Capuchin monks have a museum in Rome featuring their skulls. The caption to the display says, as you are now, so we once were; as we are now, so you will be. We were there when we were in Rome, Ann and Peter and I, back in the day, when we lodged in a hotel right down the street, and I cadged a room on the top floor overlooking the whole city from a huge roof deck – as they say, never accept the first room they give you, which in this case was like a cell. We moved to a new room, same price, and victory was ours! The Eternal City at our feet. Although “eternal “ is, we know, a exaggeration.

I wrote the other day – where, on Twitter? evanescent twitter? – that we have fought against time for a long time. Pictures of animals on cave walls that last for eons, made by those hands and minds of long-ago victims of time. Not that long ago, actually, if you put it into thei perspective of the earth's being four and a half billion years old, life on earth three and a half billion years, so cave people were just yesterday in that perspective, but just as gone as that original molten ball of earth that eventually cooled and permitted us to emerge and grow.

Then, after cave paintings, I thought about the oral epic story. Gilgamesh – Gilgamesh never did that much for me. (I hear my father's voice – “Didn't impress you then, big shot?” He would say that with a loving smile, he wasn't belittling me, I was the first-born Jewish son, and I wasn't to be belittled, a burden I carried all my life, but I guess it worked, channelled me, if that's what you want, persistence works. Anyway, who am I to belittle Gilgamesh?)

Then came writing, keeping records, recording stories of wars, heroics, love poems, philosophy, thoughts, talk, imagination, all captured by the code of lines on a surface. Architecture, too, all the trappings of civilization, capturing and freezing, then being lost, becoming decrepit, superannuated, obsolescent, obsolete, forgotten, and sometimes then unearthed and resurrected. Time just keeps going.

My parents were aware of it. They took the technology of the day to freeze time as much as they could. They took eight millimeter home movies in the 1940's and 1950's. Pictures of us running under the boardwalk. “What happened to that cute little boy?” my father would wonder as he looked at me in later years. They loved us so, their loved their young family, they remembered their own childhoods which we heard about in dribs and drabs. They had some old photographic portraits with names loosely attached – that is, there were no labels, just the photos, and we were told who was who but who could remember? They were our ancestors and relatives, but they looked just like everyone else from the 19th century, hats, dresses, mustaches, we are related to them? I guess so. That's how it works.

“You should have a hobby, Buddy,” my parents told me. I guess I was 12 or 13. We were still living in West Philadelphia, the four kids going to school just outside the city limits at Friends' Central School, so I was probably in 6th or 7th grade. I thought and answered, “Photography?” In no time I had all the equipment to develop negatives and prints with trays and chemicals down in the cellar, with a red light that wouldn't spoil the film and a yellow light for I forget what. I guess time has dimmed my memory.

I read about composing shots, f-stops, everything, and got pretty good. I was official photographer at my great aunt Sadye's wedding at her Rittenhouse Plaza apartment, and developed and printed the pictures of her and my new Uncle Henri the music publisher, and the overexposed eight by ten prints I produced were put under the glass top of Aunt Sadye's dresser forever. It was still there when she died at 96, lonely, asking me as a young doctor, is there a pill she could take to end it all? She was impatient in her loneliness, but her death was just a question of timing, as usual.

I am amazed at all the time and care and hopes my parents put into me. Supplying me with a hobby. I don't think I was grateful enough. I don't think I put enough back into my own kids. It's pretty hard when you're divorced.

I was in my thirties when the first camcorders appeared. I wanted one badly, I had the money, I saw the one I wanted at Eid's in North Berkeley, but I was taught to be thrifty. My soon to be wife Ann taught me to spend the money if that was what I wanted. So I bought it and got a tripod thrown in when I whined to Eid that it was expensive, but I knew its value. I remembered my parents eight millimeter movies, how they would get them out and run them sometimes and we would watch, and one time – it was still in the West Philly house – they were running it and I pointed at a cute little blond girl in a stroller, and I cried out, “There's Susie Levin!” But Susie's parents Herb and Beck were in the next room, visiting from their house a block and a half away, and Susie had died a few years ago from leukemia, decades before medicine learned how to cure it, and they could hear me, so in a moment of panic my Mom put her hand in front of the projector so the screen would go dark, and she hissed: “Shhhh!” Their pain was, of course, too great, people just can't talk about it. Just the other day I heard Peter Bogdanovich say how his mother could never talk about his brother who died at a year and a half. It never goes away, it perseveres, it is only covered up. The time up on the screen, they were good times, but not forever. It was long ago. Beck died a few years ago when she was almost a hundred, living alone near Rittenhouse Square, I think.

I started taking videos of our kids as my parents had taken movies of us. I got lost in the dancing at Play Day at Henry C. Lea Elementary School at 47th and Spruce Streets when I was in kindergarten, and there it was on the screen, anytime we wanted to look at it. I still have it, now on a DVD. I took lots of videos, lugged that bulky camera attached to a heavy recorder strapped over my shoulder, to games and even vacations. On Lanai I remember the busboy asking, “What's that?” It was bulky. I was relentless, I put in the effort.

We would go back from Berkeley to Philly regularly. My parents were then living in their I. M. Pei house on Society Hill on Fourth and Orianna, not far from Independence Hall, in the neighborhood my father had been born in and raised in and been happy in – he remembered when there were more horses than cars, he claimed, although I don't know, he was born in 1915 and was known to exaggerate – or lie, actually, or misremember – until the depression came and his father died of a brain abscess and his mother's family's bank failed and they moved in with a relative in some apartment, went the story. But here he was with my Mom back in city center, happy, prosperous, renewed.

I was in my late thirties, I guess, and newly confident. Camcorders were still bulky, so I left mine at home and rented one in Philly – what an expenditure! We also stayed at a nearby Holiday Inn instead of bunking with my parents – what an expenditure! And then I led them to my project.

“Buddy wants to do this,” said my mother, telling my father to go along with it. It had taken me that long to break through her iron grip on organizing the family, or so it seemed. Torch-passing, maybe, as we all got older. And what I did was, I got my mother and father in their car, Dad driving and Mom in the back seat trying to direct, certainly contributing to finding the best way to our objectives, which were all the places they had ever lived in, to film them and narrate. We would go from center city where my Dad was born, to the apartment on 42nd street where I was taken home from the hospital when I was born and where my earliest memories are – the shadows of the lights coming through the blinds as the clanging street car made its way past the apartment and I could track how the light and shadows on the walls progressed as it passed, to the house at 4931 Osage right around the corner from my mother's parents, then to the one at 422 South 47th where I learned photography and chess and had an aquarium, to the 52nd street squalid apartment where my mother was born (“the family manse, she narrated) and then out to 526 North Wynnewood Avenue where I went to Lower Merion High.

Then we went back home to Society Hill, and I don't know if it was that day or another, it might have been the next day, when I videotaped Mom and Dad in the TV room talking about old times and my father was standing up remembering when a patient, a relative or someone prominent, had been sent specially to Dad to operate on his back, I think it was. It was some kind of a tough operation. He was assisted in the operation by a resident from South America who had pustular acne, and he contaminated the op site with a bacterium that the elementary antibiotics they had at the time couldn't cure. Nowadays, of course, it wouldn't be a great problem, but the time for great antibiotics had not yet arrived. My Dad said, “I made rounds on him every day. It took him such a long time to die.”

“Don't, Henry,” my mother begged. But he had recounted it, and all the anguish that went with it. I have it all on tape. Not that I look at it. But I sent it to my siblings and I think they watched it, not that we talk about it, just one or two comments once or twice.

Back home in Berkeley I taped it when we told the older four kids that a new one was on the way, to their wonder. I taped it when we told them it was to be a boy and the three boys were thrilled and Sara, not so much. We taped Brian and Nicky and Allie on their skateboards and on their bikes, and Peter at his Little League games. Then eventually we just stopped taping, although we shouldn't have, when kids get older you just stop taping. Then came digital cameras that made taping easier, then I-phones when it's a true snap, and the kids had kids and they do it with their kids, of course.

And now it's 2020 – it should be the year of perfects eyesight but instead it's the year of COVID-19, shut up stores and staying home, waiting for COVID to disappear and for Trump to disappear as well. They will, for sure. It's only a matter of time. Waiting them out. In the end, Trump's right, everything goes away.

But with all this recording of events, freezing them in time with ever greater verisimilitude as the technology leaps forward, somewhere along the line we have neglected to take videos of me, just as we didn't take videos of my father when he got older, nor of my mother when she got sick and the good treatments for breast cancer hadn't arrived yet. But who would take them? Allie lives in Oxford with his own family, I was estranged from Nick for many years and now we're back together but his family lives in Marin and probably I'll get to see them in the future when COVID recedes in time, and Peter is not one to memorialize. And Sara my step-daughter has her own family and her own father. Maybe I'll figure out how to tape myself. Can't be that hard. I guess each nuclear family tapes itself, is the way it usually works.

So, like everyone else at this time, we wait. We have fewer events to mark it's passage, it just keeps flowing regularly on its own. We have our pursuits and our daily routines that are now more pronounced than exceptional events, I study my French and pursue writing projects and take walks for exercise, we have our meals to enjoy, our crows and squirrels to watch, the sun setting earlier each day. We just had our house painted and it's beautiful, best paint job ever. I was careful to take before and after pictures because if you're not careful and the new paint is already on, you can't go back and get the before picture. Do it then or you never will. And the new kitchen floor and appliances from two years ago are great, too. Change is good.

Actually, there's no alternative.

Budd Shenkin

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