She handed to me a shoe box patterned in stamps from around the world, only the box wasn’t for shoes but was for photographs, and it wasn’t to hold memories of global travels but to house snapshots of the journeys in years of my family. I had placed it among similar boxes in a narrow closet among unused coffee table books stacked on their backs, a plastic bin of colored markers, thank-you note cards, a box of lavender stationary, and accordion folders stuffed with remnants of writing work. Just a few months ago my mother, now in her nineties, asked me, “What happened to all those photo albums? Ya know, the red ones we used to have?” When I had taken possession of the cumbersome albums nearly twenty years ago, they were breaking apart from decades of page turning and photo flipping, rendering the black pages to dust and the photos to slip from their jackets. So one day in a fit of tidying up, I dismantled the ruby books, slipped the small black and whites and color Polaroids from their places and filed the snapshots of life into a timeline.
“I have them,” I told her. “You gave them to me for safekeeping when you moved out of your condo.”
“I don’t exactly have the albums anymore,” I told her hesitantly. “They were in terrible shape, and I put the photos in a new tidy box.” I anticipated a scolding for placing memories she had for decades recorded in pages of books. She could only reply, “Not sure what I’m going to do with the photos anyway as I can’t see them,” when I handed the box back to her.
One day when I stopped by to see her at her senior apartment, I noticed the box sitting atop a white cover of a large bible on a bookcase shelf. I reasoned she must have been going through the photos as the box appeared readily available and lidless near her reading chair. I asked her if she had been going through the old photos. “Trying to, but they’re really faded.
I pulled the box from the shelf and set it on an ottoman in front of Mom’s chair. I then kneeled beside it while Mom inched up on her seat. I fingered through the moments of times gone by, displacing dust and sending a musty odor into the air and up our noses. I plucked a few from their curled edges and handed her a photo as she grabbed her magnifying glass, pushed the button for its light, and moved the enlarged glass circle over each photo before narrowing her focus on faces. We navigated through a timeline when Tim and I were babies, on Christmas mornings ripping wrapping, our birthday parties with cupcakes smeared on our faces and party hats misplaced on our heads, school graduations dressed in our caps and gowns and smiles. “You and Tim were such cute babies.” She put down her magnifier and stared at the inside of the disheveled box and said, “And now look at you?” as if trying to read the time by their events that had moved so fast. No longer cute? I chuckled quietly to myself. “And now look at us, we’re seniors!” I said, slapping my knee and smiling. I thought how the time of our lives and our cuteness is measured by events such as these.
I followed a blue sky all the way there. My eyes were focused ahead while driving to my alma mater earlier this month, anticipating changes to its footprint. Though I had visited campus occasionally over the past couple of decades, it was this visit to Johnston Hall at the College of Journalism, “J” School, when I could see and feel what time had done.
Back then, I’d meet the landmark building in its Gothic-style arch, topped by twin stone spires in a façade of limestone that always seemed to be cloaked in shade, a sobering and reverent effect upon entering such a historical place. I’d skim the three steps to give the squeaky faded blue doors a gentle push, feeling eager to be back to a place where I felt was home, taking classes there in the morning and then returning in later afternoon for further studies. And then the doors would shut behind me, creating soft echoes in the small vestibule of a large building that had been standing since 1907. Now, pausing before the landmark, I anticipated visiting a time that was as certain as I was opening the door to release the years. But blue doors were now glass and heavy metal, and it took a good push to get through them and upon closing, the echoes were deeper, reverberating into my ears. The sound reminded me of the bell chimes next door on the tower of Gesu Church marking the hour of the day and the passing of time. Up three more steps, and I slipped into a future of modernization. Gone were small, stuffy classrooms of worn linoleum underfoot surrounded by gray walls and warm bodies shifting in mismatched chairs at shoddy desks. Black and white and carpet and glass made the halls sparkle with professionalism and the smart classrooms look more like lounges with padded chairs matching slick, long tables. I would be foolish to think time was nothing more than redecorated classrooms and jazzed up colored hall walls. I couldn’t greet J School, run up its steps, and dash through its doors with vigor expecting their entry sounds to play as they did back then, or LED lighting overhead television monitors hooked on walls looping video of an audio tour of the building to reflect any differently than announcement flyers pinned to cork bulletin boards that hung on gray walls.
Time did something to this building . . . and to me.
Back then, time was in increments of class periods, mid-terms, finals, semesters and a chiming church bell, and when paging through photos, in events, holidays and birthdays and graduations, to move a calendar along. Time was a measurable thing.
But after my visit to Johnston Hall, I realized time was not just a measurement but was something I saw as what it can do. It can make photo albums crumble, snapshots to fade, my brother and I seniors, and my mother’s eyes to become void of keen sight. Time had turned my J school from a place where I once felt secure with the familiarity of blue front doors, a home place, to one that was unfamiliar in glass and steel and drum-beat echos.
Time places a perspective on ourselves in what it can do. We can see it when viewing old photos and when visiting places where we once stood.