An Opening Through Time
Six months before my wedding, my therapist recommended that Mr. Rizzo, the tailor, do the alterations on my dress. I was thirty years old; it was 1979. Forty years earlier, my mother had worn the dress for her wedding. She died when I was seventeen.
It was a cold December day when I brought the old silk gown to Mr. Rizzo’s tailor shop on the second floor of a venerable brick building in Harvard Square. Mr. Rizzo handled the dress with exceptional care. He seemed pained that my mother wasn’t here to advise me about wedding plans or dress alterations. I slipped the gown over my head and stood before him at the full-length mirror. Mr. Rizzo was pleased that the dress fit so well.
I had no sister, no close friends or family nearby, to help with wedding preparations.
Since my senior year in high school, when cancer attacked my mother, I had become accustomed to doing things alone. My father then was busy at work and distracted tending to my sick mother. I completed my college applications by myself. I bought clothes for college by myself and packed a steamer trunk bound for an unfamiliar city—Madison, Wisconsin. I don’t think I considered myself an unfortunate, motherless girl. I soldiered through. But now, almost forty years after I slipped that dress over my head, I wonder, What was the feeling I was not feeling? If I could feel it now, how might it liberate me?
The great length of white silk material that was the train on my mother’s wedding gown hung for years draped over a hanger in the upstairs hall closet where my out-of-season coats are stored. I only open the closet to search for a heavy coat in Fall or a light one in Spring. At each change of season, when I opened the door and caught a glimpse of the shiny, slightly yellowing material, I would tell myself, I should make something from that train. A shawl, perhaps. A skirt. A decorative runner for the base of my bed. But over the years, I never made the move. It pains me to say that I eventually tossed out the long silk train. I just threw it out—into the garbage.
One of the strangest things about telling this story is that, as I write it, and truly believe I am telling the truth, I learn how my mind revised history. Into the garbage. I thought that statement was true. But yesterday, I opened the hall closet to take out a lightweight jacket, and—low and behold—draped over a hanger, were yards and yards of yellowing silk material, the train to the wedding dress. I hadn’t thrown it out. Do I have an inclination, now that I know the material is in my possession, to make something from it, to transform it? No. I want to keep it as it is. But it’s curious—why had I imagined I’d thrown it out? A wish? A fear? Perhaps I wished to believe I threw it out, because I want to believe I am through with grief, that I have tossed away grief. As if I, or anyone, could do that.
When my mother died, I inherited, along with other items of jewelry, a ring my father gave her on the occasion of their fifth wedding anniversary. It has a white-gold band studded with five tiny diamonds lined up in a row. Over the years, one by one, each diamond fell out of its setting, lost, never found, leaving a little hole and tiny prongs outstretched like curled fingers. Each time a diamond fell out, I had a jeweler replace it with a fake stone—zirconia. The last time I took the anniversary band into the jeweler’s, he applied special glue to the back of the stones to secure them in place. I wear this ring often, bringing my mother with me, holding her hand with this ring, keeping her close. My fingers are the same size as hers.
Yesterday, in spite of the glue, one of the zirconia stones fell out. I couldn’t find it. It was surprising, but not alarming. A replacement is not expensive—twenty dollars or so. But I’ve decided this time not to fill the little hole where the stone was. To replace it is a fool’s occupation, a Sisyphean task. I’ve thought about plugging the hole with a bit of colored clay, or fabric, or sequins. But I won’t do that. I’d rather contemplate the emptiness of the small opening. This represents a shift in my thinking. I no longer feel urgency to change what is there—or more, precisely, to change what is not there.
Rizzo’s shop still stands in Harvard Square. Two doors down is the Swiss Watchmaker’s shop. I remember years ago buying my older son Josh his first watch there. I want that day back—the day I wandered in and gazed at the watches in a long glass case. I was full of pride and energy, thinking of my first-born, He’s old enough to wear a watch! How old was he then—Seven? Ten? Fifteen? Fifteen seems too old for a first watch; seven seems too young. I have no idea what the right answer is. My only answer today is a kind of sorrow. I’m a little ashamed of the sorrow, yet can’t deny it. So much time has passed! Josh is now thirty-three; he will be getting married soon. He has seen thousands of seconds, minutes, hours, and days pass on that watch.
For awhile last week, and in spite of my efforts to think otherwise, I felt old. A tiredness overtook me. A truck was lodged in my chest, its wheels spinning and the bulk of it getting nowhere, a continual pressing on my lungs and heart. Everyone is receding, I thought grimly. Floating away. I could not distract myself from these morbid thoughts.
But life goes on, and here I am in Harvard Square, looking at my watch. Soon, it will be time to teach my class. I look forward to listening to my writing students, offering them my observations. I’m wearing a scarf that I love, as well as my flower-print, knitted top, and my dangling pearl earrings. There’s time before class to visit my favorite coffee shop, Burdicks, where I’ll order a cappuccino and a Linzer torte. But before that, I’ll stop at the Swiss Watchmaker’s. I’m bringing him an old watch from my Uncle Isie. The watch hasn’t worked for decades. If anyone can fix it, the Swiss Watchmaker can.
The watch from Uncle Isie has a delicate expanding band of 14 K gold segments and a small, square face that shows the numbers 12, 3, 6, and 9. The name of the manufacturer, Gruen, is printed on the face. On the back engraved in gold are my initials in stylized, elegant swirls: JIK. Uncle Isie gave me the watch when I was too young to wear it—maybe at age five or six. I can’t remember precisely. But I know this—by the time I was old enough to wear a watch, I much preferred a different style. I chose a watch with a forest-green, leather band, a face of pale green framed by emerald-tinted stones shaped like flower petals. Uncle Isie’s gold watch was relegated to the lowest tier in my velvet-lined jewelry box.
The Swiss Watchmaker’s shop is large—it expands sideways, not deeply back off the street. It’s valuable real estate in Harvard Square. This is surprising for a watchmaker, since these days, most young people use their phones to tell the time.
The watchmaker is what you’d imagine. He is short, stout, monocled, and gray-haired.
“Let’s see,” he says and holds out his hand.
I reach into the depths of my pocketbook and pull out the watch which is wrapped in layers of white tissue paper. I gingerly remove it from the paper and hold it in the palm of my hand. The watchmaker takes it carefully from me, holds it a few seconds, then places it back in my palm. “Not a chance,” he says.
“Too small, too old. No one works on watches that small and that old anymore.”
I am dumbfounded. I look at the face of the watch; it looks back at me. So. That’s it. I have to shift from believing I can get time moving again to being resigned that time has stopped at 11:15. In my confusion and dismay—for though I put on a brave face, I am devastated—I think, Stopped at 11:15—but is that AM or PM? This odd thought stands out, obscuring all other thoughts. I don’t know why. Stopping time is something you’d think a person like me would applaud—after all, I’ve admitted that I’ve recently felt old. I surely don’t want to get older faster. I don’t want time to fly. But this experience—the stopped-watch experience—has an effect that is not reassuring; rather, it exacerbates my sadness.
The dress I wore for my wedding had a high neck, tapered sleeves that extended to my wrists, thirty-six silk-covered buttons up the back, and a long, A-line skirt. From neck to ankles, no skin showed.
In contrast, the dress I’ll wear to Josh’s wedding is a form-fitting, navy blue sheath with a dramatic slit up one side. The cut of the bodice exposes my arms, shoulders and much of my back. Two silver, sequined-studded stripes accent the front of the gown. The back is also studded with sequins. It’s a daring outfit; and as I’ve said, it exposes a lot. And here’s the thing—the cut of the new dress coincides with a more profound exposure—a raw grief that until now I had not fully acknowledged, or accessed. I wish my mother were here now, that she had not missed so much. Recently I had this dream: I am visiting my mother. She is very old—ninety-seven. She has lived nearly fifty years longer than she did in real life. We are saying good-bye to each other. From this dream, I startle awake. A note of elation mixes with my sadness as I think, How wonderful—to have the chance to talk to her.
Jane Katims has authored numerous radio series for Wisconsin Public Radio, one earning a George Foster Peabody Award. She has also received the John Woods Scholarship in Fiction Writing. A collection of her poetry, Dancing on a Slippery Floor, was published in 2007. Her work has appeared in Pearl Magazine, and more recently in Proximity Magazine and The Coachella Review. She is currently working on a collection of personal essays. She has three children, Joshua, Ben and Rachel, and lives with her husband, Dan Perlman in Massachusetts where she teaches contemporary literature and creative writing at The Cambridge Center for Adult Education and at Tufts Institute for Lifelong Learning at Tufts University.