I was twelve years old when I read “A Wrinkle in Time.” This fanciful book, which posits that people have the ability to pass through dimensions and time, was awarded the Newbery medal, which honors distinguished contributions to children’s literature. Always an ambitious reader, I’d assigned myself the task of reading all the Newbery books dating back to 1922. Generally a pretty grounded kid, the science fiction/fantasy genres were not my go-to-first choices in literature, but even back then, I wondered at the possibilities in the inconceivably huge universe, full of mystery and largely so unknown. I also saw the film “The Time Machine” in the early ‘60’s. I remember thinking that I’d never want to travel forward because the future might be too terrifying. But I frequently thought about how great it would be to go backwards, to witness events as they actually happened and to do the good stuff one more time.
I thought of wrinkles in time with a tongue-in-cheek smirk on my face this afternoon, when I opened a handmade oak box, the one with a cecropia moth embedded below a thick plastic layer on its lid. I gifted Michael the box in the early 1970’s. I remembered being unable to part with this small but heavy chest when I was going through Michael’s stuff after his death. He was an oak lover who cherished anything made from his favorite natural material. I’d decided to use it as a storage container for my letters from my always-missed friend Fern, along with the condolence cards and letters I’d received after Michael died.
Today, once again at the apparently never-ending task of downsizing, I am speculating as to whether I will ever get to the state called “minimalist.” As the years zip along, I make progress, but living in the same place for 44 years has allowed for quite an accumulation of stuff. I still have so much left to sort through, despite my best efforts. Meanwhile I’m aware that my physical wrinkles are increasing with age, which of course is expected as bodies show the wear of time. The other wrinkles of my past, the emotional and psychological ones, are deepening as well, including those that exist below, and perhaps beyond the dimensions I occupy in my current life. Although still pretty grounded, I allow for more fantasies about the great unknown, mostly because of inexplicable experiences that dot the landscape of my life. Have I altered my memories over time? What have I forgotten? What about the strange moments I’ve never been able to fully explain? I’m sure there are scientific discoveries that will come long after I’m gone which will provide answers for some of my questions. For now, curious about what’s in those more intangible wrinkles, I popped that box open, searching for clues.
I know that some people would’ve dumped these missives from the past. I just can’t do that. The oldest ones are approaching 60 years old. They are part of my history. I think that one day my kids will be fascinated to flesh out their understanding of who we were, based on the light shed from the messages I’ve tucked away. They’ll also remember bits of themselves, caught in a snapshot, a moment. In the bowels of a downstairs closet are tubs of letters, apology notes and greeting cards from them to us. In addition, as they became regular technology users, I started printing their emails so certain priceless exchanges wouldn’t be lost. No one appointed me curator of family artifacts but apparently I have a gene for this role.
I went through an unearthing experience like the one I imagine in my kids’ future, with a more paltry collection of letters my mom had carried around for years. In my case, the found letters created more confusion than clarity. I suspect that my mom found these mixed in with my grandmother’s photos after gram died in 1982.
That she had them was interesting as my grandmother was illiterate, something which astounded me years ago and still does. I knew her as a very smart woman who managed to pass her citizenship exam orally in her late ‘70’s. The idea that she accepted her life shut out from the written word is hard to assimilate. Although no one could ever call her submissive, she conformed to the woman’s traditional second class status accepted in the old country. My grandfather, who I don’t believe was anywhere close to her rival in intelligence, did nothing to help her past those outmoded mores. Those two were first cousins whose family members were and still are, tangled in a confused mess of complicated relationships. When I found this stack of fragile letters and postcards in my mom’s albums, I was determined to find out who’d written them to which person, hoping to understand all the mysterious connections. Mom remembered letters arriving at her home during the 1930’s, years after my grandparents had emigrated from Poland separately, in 1913 and 1920. By the late 1930’s, communication from Europe ceased. My mom has sparse information about the lost family. Through a circuitous route, I connected with a sophisticated translator in Berlin who was able to deconstruct these mashes of Hebrew, Yiddish and Polish. The author of them seems to have been my grandfather’s mother/my grandmother’s aunt. A mundane litany of daily problems, illnesses and queries about life in the U.S., they shed little life on the mysterious family relationships and in fact, brought up the possibilities of more unknown family members. Mom said her parents rarely discussed the past with her. The letters remain evocative of a faraway life, much like the old photos of people I’ll never identify. My unknown relations.
The letters I unearthed from my own life today took me back to slices of experience that burst from a flat, one-dimensional memory into vibrant technicolor reels spinning off the written page. With the keyboard having virtually replaced long-hand, the surprise in looking at pages of cursive is how they instantly evoke the person who penned them. No anonymous keystroke can compare to the unique response handwriting elicits in sussing out the individual wielding a pen. I selected letters which at the briefest glance, instantly conveyed authorship. Fern’s backhand, for example, the mark of a classic lefty, although over years, her handwriting changed. I felt those changes reflected her deteriorating emotional state. Michael’s flowing strokes, so reminiscent of his relaxed, lounging behavior. My friend Dennis, intermittently my boyfriend, whose handwriting reflected his training as an architect. My mother’s dramatic spikes. My own classic penmanship, honed by hours of practice in Miss Kittle’s Penmanship workbooks. The styles alone drew me into distant places.
But of course content is everything. I am steeped in the emotional life I’ve built up over decades. I require no external validation for my feelings. Still, there is something remarkable about having a concrete representation of experience, like the souvenirs brought home from a special trip. Reading your life, especially through another’s voice is unique and special. The thoughts in those letters vibrate across time, reinforcing what I’ve held as my truths. I am here in the present, but for a glimmer, I am back there, fifty years ago, forty years ago. Being transported to another time by those absent pillars of my world, Michael, my mother, Fern, who took a few moments to codify our relationship, is a gift. My own expressions from deep inside myself, expressed in written form to them, which they cared enough to save, are also priceless.
So just exactly where did I wind up in time by sinking into these wrinkles? The Fern letters I read took me to 1964 and 1985. She wrote me the first one from overnight camp in Wisconsin, a summer experience outside my family’s economic wheelhouse. Back then I was envious of her privilege. As years passed, I learned that her vacation opportunities were meaningless given the challenges of her daily life. That letter was innocent and confiding, a recounting of the transient flirtations that occupy adolescents. The one from 1985 was substantially different. Only three years prior to her suicide, we’d lived apart for a number of years. She was married, although that relationship would soon end. She was delving into therapy, confronting difficult life issues. “I don’t know where to begin. Writing you is not like writing anyone else. I feel guilty for so many things…you know them all. I am trying to come to grips with my profound conviction that I can never mother a child – I am inconsistent, cold and selfish. I hope that you, who knows me best of all, but who can be a mother, can understand me. It’s funny, I can say all this to certain people and it’s just words, I don’t feel a thing, no regret, no emotion at all. But it is very hard to write it to you. Probably because I know you understand.” Fern has been dead for 34 years. I have mourned her all that time. Our friendship lasted for 37 years and despite some bumps and physical distance, it remains one of the most intimate bonds I ever experienced. This wrinkle took me back to that essential connection which has never left me. Not a fabrication – she felt it too.
The only letters I saved from any significant other besides Michael were the ones I have from Dennis. We stayed friends well into out adult life, after we were both married with our own families. I think that was because I was never convinced that we could take our relationship to that level required for an adult commitment. He was a wandering guy. He felt differently, that he could ultimately settle down. In the end, I moved on, but we both saw value in our communication. For me, he was a reminder that I wasn’t always the person who was abandoned, one of the great fears of my life. I remembered that after diving into his note from that other dimension as well as knowing he could never be monogamous, despite his best efforts. “I mentioned that while I was in Columbus, Ohio, that I met someone very much like you. I had no idea there could be two such crazies in the world. The similarities were staggering. However I did practice restraint and reminded myself that I’m an upstanding husband and father. I didn’t give in to my old habits.” I hadn’t thought about my impact on him for a very long time. But it too was real.
I well remember 1972, the year Michael and I shifted our relationship from friendship to the romance that endured until his death. But I’d forgotten that I’d reached out to my parents for support when my previous boyfriend, whose inconsistent behavior finally drove me away from him, reappeared in my life right before he was moving to California to begin graduate school. Despite the fact that my mom and dad often seemed to forget which of us was the parent, they remained a secure refuge for me when I needed one. I did note that when I wrote them, I was trying to assure them that I was fine, even when I wasn’t. “Dear Mom and Dad, I called the other day because I was kind of upset. I had a big shock, but things are under control now, so don’t worry. What happened was that I saw Albert after a really long time without being near him. I knew he was leaving in two weeks, so when he asked me to sit and talk for a while, I figured it would be alright, since I had wondered what he was doing and since I probably wouldn’t see him again. Well, he bowled me over. He told me the same old story, how he hadn’t gotten over me yet, but with a few pretty incredible additions. He said that since he’s been alone, he’s had a lot of time to think about his problems and immaturity and that he always ends up miserable when he’s away from me. That every time he gets involved with someone else, he always becomes bored and unhappy and with his dissatisfaction, he soon remembers, turns to me in his head and gets lonely.” A wrinkle in time, indeed. What a dramatic saga played out with me and Al so long ago. My letter to my parents is much less alienating than my many repetitive, embarrassing journal entries from that bumpy time in my life. Another thing I didn’t invent.
Reading letters and notes that Michael wrote me is most like time travel for me. I remember much of our life together but the details they reveal are not what I think about daily. These treasures transport me to the very beginning of our friendship and then boomerang me forward through our 45 years together. They feel like a favorite bathrobe you slip on when you need comfort, except they provide interior solace. I’m so grateful that he was a writer, although he wouldn’t have thought of himself that way. I found a letter he wrote me in February, 1972, a few months before our romance started. I was in Chicago at the time, getting ready to depart for a trip abroad. We’d been fast friends since the previous August. “ I just got back from Carbondale last night and found your letter in the mailbox today. I’m pretty lousy about writing letters, but I really feel like talking to you…If I can get all my stuff out of the way tomorrow I’ll be in Chicago on Friday and I’ll call you when I get in. I’m alone and it feels better to be lonely than it does when I’m with 20 people. Right now, I’m actually feeling kinda nice – I’m listening to some good rock n’ roll – I can feel your presence very close. Reminds me of other days. Don’t worry about feeling bad – just keep feeling. Later…love you, Michael.” When I read this, I was temporarily absent from today, lost in that space when my life was about to change direction, when I was going to be with a life partner. If there are wrinkles in time, I can definitely immerse myself in this one.
I don’t know what’s out in the great beyond. I know that science has established that wavelengths are real and measurable. Perhaps as I write this, my activity is spiraling off somewhere, so that it will forever be drifting. Who knows? The only thing I can be sure of is that the capacity to at least temporarily be on another plane or in a wrinkle, as I’m defining them, can feel pretty real. I’m glad I have these reminders at hand that provide the escape hatch to places far from now. Write a letter. You never know what a treasure it might be for someone years down the road.