by Jacqueline Kolosov
…A constant idea of mine [is] that behind the cotton wool is a hidden pattern….
we—I mean all human beings—are connected with this…the whole world is
a work of art…we are parts of the work of art….We are the words; we are the music;
we are the thing itself—Virginia Woolf, “A Sketch of the Past”
Photo by Jacqueline Kolosov
As a child nearing nine, I woke to a too-bright moon in the midst of winter—the branches of the trees beyond my window bare—intensely aware that there would be a time when my parents would no longer be here. This strange waking occurred not long after my gentle-eyed maternal grandmother died. For the first time during this season of lilacs and flirty-skirted tulips, my mother’s eyes were red and swollen, and the kitchen did not smell of yeast-leavened breads and fruit tarts. I don’t know how many nights passed before I found a way to soothe myself to sleep by trying to find creatures—a rabbit, a bird, a dog—in the dizzying patterns of the wallpaper. Soon nighttime found me telling stories about the creatures hidden on those walls.
Time acquires a charged emotional value because we are feeling and not just thinking creatures. For Virginia Woolf, strong emotion is not bound by time—It is only a question of discovering how we can get ourselves again attached to it, so that we shall be able to live our lives through from the start. As an artist, her work is about re-entering memory through writing that is strongly influenced by the visual—the red and purple flowers on her mother’s dress that so captivated her when she was in the nursery—and by the auditory—the sound of the sea’s one-two rhythm behind a yellow nursery blind.
Paradoxically—but what is truth if not paradox?—alongside recovering memories that remain unbound by time, Woolf reminds that the artist’s work must also embody the dizzying movement of change. One must get the feeling of everything approaching and then disappearing, getting large, getting small, passing at different rates of speed past the little creature…. When a truly old person speaks about childhood, first love, the birth of a child, it is with bewilderment and perhaps also amazement as they acknowledge how quickly the years pass. More than one person in the so-called “golden years” has told me that their reflection in the mirror continues to startle them. Who is this person with the spidery, crepe-paper skin? The sunken eyes? Fading hair? Was it so long ago when I could climb the backyard apple tree? Swim to the other end of the lake? Climb a flight of stairs without faltering for breath?
A sad tale’s best for winter. I have one/of sprites and goblins….
Before I read Virginia Woolf, I read Shakespeare—devoured him rather, in the company of a tweedy, old professor with a reading voice like poured amber who insisted our college class read each play aloud. I found myself particularly drawn to the tragedies, specifically to King Lear, and to the late romances, my favorite of which remains The Winter’s Tale. Introduced as “an old tale,” the play begins with the destructive jealousy of a mentally disordered king. Suspecting his wife to have been unfaithful with his best friend, and the child she is about to deliver to be a bastard, the king banishes his wife to prison and ultimately condemns her to death. As for the babe she bears, the king orders one of his councilors to take the newborn, a girl, into the wilderness and put her to death. It is a grim opening, worthy of the very best fairy tales; and like so many fairy tales, the archetypal qualities of the characters are etched in severe outlines: crazed, “bad” king; noble, “good” wife; innocent, pure child.
Had Shakespeare written The Winter’s Tale as tragedy, the babe would have perished; the queen would have died, either by execution or of grief; and the king? He would have realized his wrongdoings—but only once it was too late to redeem the past. In the late romances, however, redemption comes through art coupled with nature. This is an art/which does mend nature, change it rather, but the art itself is nature… Instead of putting the queen to death, her faithful friend, also a woman, transforms her into a statue-an exquisite work of art. The spell is broken only after the king repents and the child, their daughter, is safely recovered.
Since she was three, my daughter Sophie has routinely asked to hear about the beginning of her own life.
Tell me about the day I was born, Mama.
So I tell her about the trip to the hospital in mid-January during a snowstorm—so unusual for West Texas—that overlay the town with hushed whiteness, and then a fast-forward to the moments that accompanied her birth and its aftermath.
What did I do first, Mama?
You cried—oh, you were so mad.
This description inevitably makes her laugh.
And then what did I do?
You pooped in Daddy’s face.
And then what?
And then—and here I will still sometimes pause, breathless, as if the moment is again before me—and then you crawled up and began to nurse.
And did you love me? she will ask.
More than anything in the world—
Like all births, my daughter’s took place in time—at four a.m. on the thirteenth of January 2007. Yet the story of her birth, the mythic status it has taken on in our family, could almost be said to exist outside of time. Sophie needs that story. Having just started kindergarten, she needs to hear that she is loved—more than anything in the world—that the foundation of her life is secure, in a whole new way. And as the years pass, she will continue to need that story for different reasons.
In her memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? British novelist Jeanette Winterson creates a narrative around her childhood as the adopted daughter of working-class Pentecostal Evangelicals living in the north of England. In giving shape and meaning to her life with the apocalyptic Mrs. Winterson (not Mum and certainly never Mommy) and Dad, Winterson builds in the necessity of story to her survival, in large part because it enabled her to escape clock time:
Time might be what stops everything happening at once,
but time’s domain is the outer world. In our inner world,
we can experience events that happened to us in time
as happening simultaneously. Our non-linear self is
uninterested in ‘when’, more interested in ‘wherefore’.
Wherefore or “for what reason or purpose” is akin to the German wofür, meaning “for what, what for, why.” Or, in the words of Shakespeare: “Every why hath a wherefore.”
Wherefore gets at the heart of the reason Sophie needs to hear the story of her birth; wherefore is the reason Winterson wrote the memoir. The past is another country, but one that we can visit, one once there we can bring back the things we need. Her words invoke Woolf’s belief that strong emotion must leave its trace. The inner life’s time, the soul’s time, is archetypal and in no way linear. The soul’s time does not have a beginning, middle and end. In our inner world, we can experience events that happened to us in time as happening simultaneously.
More than a decade ago, I walked the Way of Saint James, also known as the Compostela, a pilgrimage I began in the French Pyrenees and followed all the way to the city of Santiago, some fifty kilometers from the Atlantic Ocean. I made this journey, alone, after the end of my first marriage, one that had begun with the trust but also with the naiveté of two people who had met in college, and ended with my inability to remain with my husband, who had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder—quite likely Woolf’s own illness—when he was twenty-six. After two hospitalizations and too much instability, I finally left when he was thirty-two.
By the time I neared the end of the pilgrimage—some four weeks of continuous walking—I no longer made a distinction between past, present, and future. When one is a body in a landscape, walking, there is only the now, an immediacy made more intense by blisters, hunger, and thirst; but also by sunlight filtering through the intensely fragrant eucalyptus leaves, the satisfaction of a bowl of warm stew and bread after a rainy hike through the tree-rooted paths of Galicia, birdsong at dawn and again at dusk. That’s not to say I was necessarily “happy”; though happiness does contain within it the Old English “hap” or sense of chance, fortune, which certainly enlarges the meaning of the word.
On one of my loneliest days, I felt windy inside and simultaneously very heavy. It was at precisely this time that a shaggy pony stepped out of the bushes and onto the path, looked me in the eyes, and the closing lines of a poem by James Wright that I’d carried for years returned: If I stepped out of my body, I would break/into blossom. For me, then and now, or rather, always, that encounter with the pony brought together many threads from my life. In Woolf’s terms, it was one of my most powerful “moments of being” when the cotton wool parted, and I glimpsed the pattern of my existence in its entirety for that shining space of time. I’d first read “A Blessing” when I was in graduate school and just beginning to understand the weight, the burden, of my ex-husband’s illness. Is it significant then that Wright wrote this poem after his own divorce at a time of intense solitude when he desperately needed a connection? I believe so—too, by this point I understood that one had to break, or be broken, before one could blossom.
Tell me about the day I was born, Mama.
Strong emotion must leave its trace.
This is an art/which does mend nature,
change it rather, but the art itself is nature…
How immense must be the force of life which turns a baby,
who can just distinguish a great blot of blue and purple on a
black background, into the child who thirteen years later can
feel all that I felt on May 5th 1895—now almost exactly to a day,
forty-four years ago—when my mother died—”A Sketch of the Past”
Two summers ago, I had dinner with two colleagues and the husband of the Renaissance scholar to whom we’d just offered the position of department chair. He, too, was an academic, a modernist in British literature. After we discovered a mutual passion for Woolf, I told him about my upcoming research trip to St. Ives.
“I would love to be going where you are, you know,” he said.
Because he’d been reading Woolf for as long as I have, I didn’t need to tell him that St. Ives, on the tip of Cornwall, is the locale where Virginia Woolf spent her childhood summers; just as he knew that To the Lighthouse, the novel she wrote to lay the ghost of her mother to rest, found its origins there.
Instead, I told him about Woolf’s influence on my own life and art.
“Her voice just carries me: the rhythms, her sensibility, the way moments of beauty or charged experience are ultimately more precious because underlying them are grief and loss.”
He looked at me intently. “Yes. With Woolf, I always know where I stand.”
I went on to quote Eudora Welty in the introduction to To the Lighthouse. “She said that ‘Woolf was always tenuously connected to this life.’ I understand that. To some extent, I share that way of being. It’s one reason why children—why my daughter—matters so much. I’ve always believed or at least wondered: what if Woolf had had a child? Would that child have kept her alive?”
We both knew that she committed suicide by weighting her pockets with stones and walking into the River Ouse at the point where the river meets the sea.
“So,” he said, long after dinner has ended, as we stood outside amid the last vestiges of daylight, “is that question going to be part of the project? Part of what you’re looking for in Cornwall?”
“I don’t know,” I replied.
Biking home, however, I realized that the question was absolutely central.
“Except that it’s an unanswerable question,” my husband said. “We’ll never know if Woolf would have lived if she’d had a child.”
“True, except the answer isn’t what matters,” I said on the verge of another discovery. “What matters is the resonance of the question—the possible story or stories it suggests.”
Sigmund Freud, one of the grand masters of narrative, understood that the past is not fixed in the way that linear time suggests. We can return, Winterson writes, paraphrasing Freud. We can pick up what we dropped. We can mend what others broke. We can talk with the dead.
My Russian-born grandmother died mid-way through her ninety-fourth year. It was August, and the roses in her garden that she had so lovingly cultivated since she moved into her house some twenty-five years earlier, were once again in bloom. Tropicana, American Beauty, Peer Gynt—I say their names as another might say the beads of the rosary, to bring myself to that quiet country which now exists outside of time. The roses lie at the heart of the story I tell about my grandmother’s death, for I like to picture her within that perfumed circle of beauty. In her last year, she sat beside the window overlooking the roses speaking in Russian, German and some Lithuanian, the languages in which she’d lived for the first forty years of her life. English, which came only much later, fell almost completely away during these final months.
I spent thirty years listening to my grandmother’s stories, both the stories of her life but also fairy tales, which often bled into each other, for the stories she told took place in the soul’s time. Once upon a time, there was a little girl, and her grandmother sent her into the woods to gather mushrooms…. “Told” is not the right word; my grandmother lived and breathed her stories. In elementary school, while I was taking ballet lessons, she would help me to stage living room performances in which I took on the persona of any one of the colorfully painted ballerinas in an illustrated book about dance that she shared with me.
My grandmother was a natural storyteller; only later did I realize that stories quite likely helped her to survive in the countries in which she found herself, often during wartime, or in the aftermath of war. Having fled one European country after the next, first during the Revolution and again during the Second World War, what must it have been like for her to board a ship and, accompanied by my grandfather and her teenage son, my father, make the journey to the States, a country that held no connections for her? When she and her family settled in Chicago, and she went to work on the assembly line of a lamp factory, I have no doubt that the memories of her family farm in Lithuania returned again and again.
One must get the feeling of everything approaching and then disappearing, getting large, getting small, passing at different rates of speed past the little creature ….
What is the meaning of life? That was all—a simple question; one that tended to close in on one with the years. The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark… The consciousness here is the painter Lily Briscoe’s, and the novel, To the Lighthouse. I have returned to this novel again and again over the years, reading it to clarify what I know but cannot quite articulate. Mrs. Ramsay is the mother and the artist of daily life—making of the moment something permanent. Lily, too, is an artist, a painter; and her quest is to paint Mrs. Ramsay and all she represents. In Lily’s painting—her vision, which is simultaneously Woolf’s narrative, is nothing less than a revelation—some common feeling held the whole; it is shape in the midst of chaos.
My grandmother, the only daughter of a three star Russian general, the highest honor a military man could achieve under the czars-in this case, the last czar and his father before him (and yes, I am aware of what I say about myself in foregrounding this part of her story), was born in St. Petersburg where she attended Queen Catherine’s School for Girls. The class photograph from her seventh year sits in a silver frame on my office windowsill. In it, my grandmother, Helen, is a light-eyed girl with pigtails and a solemn face, a solemnity that confused me given her exuberant spirit, until I understood it to be typical of formal photographs of that era.
I’ve seen many, many photographs from the first forty years of her life, for she kept these in a worn but well-tended leather-bound album that she’d brought with her from Europe after she, my grandfather, and my father left for America in the aftermath of the Second World War. I looked at her photographs on my weekly visits to her home, always in her company. Each photograph, then, was connected to a story from her history. There was the bull in the meadow on her family’s land that she’d frightened off. There was her father’s Saint Bernard, a dog that had accompanied him on his military expeditions, and ultimately died of poison gas during World War I. That dog, she said, was no match for the family’s cat. Whenever the cat had a litter of kittens, she would take each one and place it in the dog’s fur for warmth. And the great dog, he never moved….
She would tell a story, and even as a child I understood that she was affirming who she had been, affirming that old self and bringing her forward into the present; or perhaps she was going deep into the past; and quite possibly, she was living—for the space of that story—in the landscape of real as opposed to clock time.
In one story my grandmother was sixteen years old, and it was wartime, and she and her mother and brother were living in the countryside of Lithuania on the family property. There was very little to eat, mostly potatoes; but we had parties and dances. We hung quilts on the windows to keep in the heat, but also because the quilts made the parties more festive. Do you understand?
Yes, I would reply, though I rarely ate potatoes, preferring rice, and I did not own a hand-sewn quilt like the ones in her photographs until I was in my twenties and a family friend brought me an heirloom that had belonged to someone else from an antique shop in Maine. It was an heirloom without a story, or at least without a story I understood, a discovery that seemed both sad and curiously liberating, as if its patches of carefully-sewn fabric held many, many possible stories.
Four years after I sat on the steps of the monastery in Santiago at dusk looking down at a city that had been the destination of pilgrims for centuries, I married again. My husband is eleven years older than I am; a poet, he is also a Groucho-esque comic and a fly fisherman who dreams of rivers; I say “dreams” because he has lived in arid West Texas for the last twenty years. In this sentence alone lies a story, several stories. He is also the ninth and youngest child in his family. His parents were in their nineties by the time I moved to Texas to build a life with him. His mother died of a stroke within three months of my arrival. His father died some six months later, unable or unwilling (his children believe) to live on without his “Betty,” a woman he called “prettiest girl in Chicago” for decades after they left that city in which they met.
Due to the circumstances, I never met my husband’s parents. For me, they exist through a very few family photographs, nearly all of them black and white—and through the stories my husband and his siblings have shared. It may not have been the practice back then, but Dad always helped with the dishes, my husband’s sister said at their father’s memorial service. With nine children, the boundary between what was his to do—and hers—overlapped.
Because I never met my husband’s parents—or because I meet them only through stories in which he, Raymond, is once again a very passionate, red-haired inventor who supported a wife and nine children by selling sheetrock for forty years, and she, Elizabeth, a woman who cleaned the house to the soundtrack of The Music Man and loved the white beaches of the South Carolina coast—they have been freed from the clock.
Since their deaths, my husband tells me that he continues to meet his parents in dreams.
When you do dance, I wish you
A wave o’ the sea, that you might ever do
Nothing but that.
In The Winter’s Tale, the king and queen’s daughter is recovered by a shepherd who raises her as his own. A prince—the very son of the mad king’s best friend—meets and falls in love with her. Once she is restored to her parents and her true identity revealed, he marries her. It is this prince who speaks these words of praise to the lost princess when they meet. Is it any surprise, then, that he joins in the dancing, the rhythm of the waves? If a dancer is impossible to know without dancing, then a wave is impossible to know without the sea’s tides. Both are rhythmic, fluid, and partake of the eternal, that part of existence that, as Woolf said, “abides”.
To unpathed waters, undreamed shores.
My grandmother died just as my father, her only child, was nearing his seventieth year. My mother was out of the country at the time, and so it fell to him to manage the preparations for burial until my mother could return. The first thing he did was to go out and buy new underwear in which his mother was to be buried-another telling detail, another possible story. For my father, whose childhood was spent in a bombed out European city where his half-sister had been buried alive in rubble, ritual—form—has come to matter more than anything. Ritual is all my father has of faith, and he clings to it fiercely. Therefore, my grandmother was buried in her finest things-a violet dress she wore on holidays, beautiful black shoes, and clean, white underthings. Yet the wedding ring she’d worn for seventy years remained behind-I wear it now…
My father is now eighty. He remains the keeper of her albums and to a great extent the keeper of her stories. While she was living, I did not write those stories down (believing perhaps that here would always be a tomorrow), and although I hold onto bits and pieces-fragments—that, as T.S. Eliot says in “The Waste Land” I have shored against my ruin—I lack a sense of the whole. In the coming years, my father has therefore promised to record my grandmother’s stories so that I will have them, and my daughter will have them after me. In the meantime, on every trip back to Chicago, I sit beside him and methodically gather up as much information as I can.
At home, Sophie and I curl up by lamplight before bed and read aloud together: Old Turtle and the Broken Truth, Cinderella, The Girl Who Loved to Dance, The Velveteen Rabbit, Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present, The Cat in the Hat, Charlotte’s Webb, The Borrowers, Ramona the Brave. Reading these tales with her, savoring the rhythms of the sentences, I experience again—full force—the power of story, for the boundary between what is real and what imagined is remarkably porous—malleable—when one is a child.
Which reminds me of the fact that it was not until the fifteenth century that a distinction arose between history and story, and for many of us—for those of us who meet ourselves in the story of the girl who tumbles down the rabbit hole or the dragon who falls in love with a little boy—the distinction remains somewhat artificial. The facts can only be the facts. The dreaming, passionate part of ourselves will not be met there. In other words, the more we read-expansively, eclectically, and with great abandon-the more we live. Stories are about who we are and who we might be. Now and always. This knowledge candles a hope that my daughter, Sophia Helen, will one day meet her great-grandmother Helen in that expansive landscape freed from the years in which she, my mother (also Helen), and I must make our way.
This kindled and kindling knowledge that the inner life’s time, the soul’s time, is archetypal and in no way linear is with me on days when I wake to a dozen sunflowers opening their lions’ faces to the backyard sun, yes; but it is also there—and often I have to wait passionately for it, as if for deliverance—on those pharmacy-bright mornings when my neck stiffens with the anxious knowledge of abiding losses and hurts: my own mother and father’s aging and the geographical distance between me and them, the fact that I never reconciled the pain I brought my ex-husband, the awareness that my daughter will never know and love her grandparents as I did my grandmother.
The soul’s time does not have a beginning, middle and end.
In the soul’s time, my mother is picking tomatoes in the garden while my grandmother and I sit in the crabapple tree’s shade talking, as the rabbits that nibble the flowers watch from the shrubbery. At times, perhaps, looking into my grandmother’s blue eyes, I may even believe I see a flicker of my Sophie’s mischief and intelligence there. As for the boy I loved in a way I will never love again, he exists only in that landscape without beginning, middle, or end; there, he is dancing with me in a sunlit room, and laughing, freed from the clock and from the grief that engulfed the latter years of our history.
Yes, I realize, grateful for time’s fluidity at low tide but especially when the horse heads so fiercely plunge in and out of the sea, bringing with them chaos and fear, alongside compassion, if I teach my daughter one thing, it must be the value of story with its variegated points of light. Virginia Woolf understood this; the recognition may have been fled from her at times—surely it abandoned her on that last afternoon beside the River Ouse; but she knew it deeply enough to transform her discovery into art. The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark… For Woolf, and for me, now and always, this has to be enough.