History in a moment
In my desk drawer I have one of those small daguerreotypes housed in a gilt frame and tucked into a black leather box trimmed inside with red velvet. A young woman stares out from it, but she seems to be receding into a misty background. A chemist friend of mine explained that the image is fleeing from the copper plate and that the process is irreversible.
If I look closely, however, I can make out basic features. Her hair is dark and she has it coiffed back so that ringlets fall around her neck and shoulders. She is wearing a dark dress with what appear to be small white flowers sprinkled over it like snowflakes. Her neck and wrists are wreathed in white lace.
Her eyes are the most appealing features in her countenance. Yet they seem empty and emotionless. They appear that way partly because her image is fading and partly because I do not know who she is. I retrieved the picture a few years ago from the attic of my aunt's house the day the house was being sold at auction, but I have been unable to discover the woman's identity.
Although no memory links me to the young woman, the daguerreotype has been a curiosity to me. I have even tried to write poems about it. But, because I have no emotional tie with the image it houses, a precise meaning and purpose has always eluded me, like a word on the tip of my tongue that I can almost taste and feel but can't quite shape into an utterance.
I grew up on a farm in the southwest corner of the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia, an area rich in history and strewn with artifacts. The ruins of an old plantation house lay in an overgrown lot just across the driveway from our house. It had burned several years before we moved to our farm, and the remains lay in a tangle of honeysuckle, blackberry vines, rambling rose-bushes, and clumps of lilac.
I often wandered around the edges of the rubble in the first few months after we moved to the farm, peering into the darkness of the tangled undergrowth. I continued my search during the winter months, and one cold February day I found a sword buried under some bricks through which I had been probing with a long pole. At first the object I struck looked like a flat piece of metal that had fallen, probably when the chimney had collapsed during the fire. When I pried the bricks away from the side of the stone foundation, the blackened hilt of a sword appeared.
The sword was still in its scabbard when I first retrieved it, welded in by the searing heat of the fire and by the rust that had grown in it over the years. It was also slightly bent, and I managed to remove it from its housing only after a struggle. The bare blade was pitted with rust and blackened from the fire. The leather that had once made the grip in the handle had also burned away. But for all its defects the sword fascinated me, and I wondered at it as part of an age usually cloistered in museums or locked away in attics and closets. An element of mystery attached to the sword, the kind of mystery I discovered later in the old cap-and-ball revolver that my great-grandmother kept wrapped in a shawl in her bureau drawer.
It must have been about 1948 when Great-grandmother told me about watching her father go off to war when she was still a very young girl. She had watched him wave goodbye as he walked across a stubble field. I was eight then, and she was in her 90s.
She and my grandmother were washing supper dishes when she told me. Her hand moved slowly, mechanically, for a moment across a plate she was drying; then it stopped. She allowed her arm to fall slowly, her hand still clutching the plate, until it hung by her side like a stilled pendulum. The gold in her wire-rimmed glasses glowed faintly in the creamy evening light as she turned to stare out the front door and down across the newly cut hayfield, trying to see back as she spoke.
For that instant she escaped the kitchen, the dishes, and the summer heat to another place and time. I remember that moment and her expression. I followed her part of the way and could see a small gray figure moving through the white mist rising from an empty field on an autumn morning. He paused at the field's distant edge, turned and waved his arm high above his head, then disappeared into the trees beyond.
He did not come back. Among the few belongings of his that remained I only remember the pistol. Great-grandmother allowed me to see it from time to time. I used to be able to cock it, to pull the trigger and feel the small vibration as the hammer slammed down against the nipples on the cylinder. The pistol still had the musty smell of partly oxidized metal and aged grease.
I always wanted that pistol. I wanted to restore it, not so much as a possession but as part of a past that belonged to me. I thought that I could hold the pistol and think about the figure at the far side of that stubble field , and he wouldn't disappear into the trees. At least that's the way I looked at things as a child.
The sword was like the pistol, except that it was a curiosity from the earth and had passed beyond belonging to anyone. I looked at it and held it up to the sky, imagining that its blade had been shiny once and might have cut the air above a horse's head in a cavalry charge. I tried to imagine it hanging by some soldier's side, an officer maybe, swaying gently to the rhythm of a horse's steady gait as a column of soldiers made its way into the haze of the upper Shenandoah. But nothing like the small, gray figure I saw when Great-grandmother spoke that evening ever appeared when I held the sword.
I have since learned that my best memories have never been housed in things. I haven't seen the pistol or the sword for years. Both of them disappeared when I was still a child, and I doubt that I could now select either of them from an accumulation of old weapons. The pistol may be restored in someone else's collection or tucked away in someone else's bureau drawer. The sword may have been carried off by some other, more avid treasure seeker.
But I still remember that summer evening when my great-grandmother looked down across that hayfield. Her image is a moment of personal history, more indelibly etched on my memory than any image tenuously captured on a copper plate. I can still remember the clear, faraway intensity in her eyes as she looked toward the small, gray figure waving at the far side of that stubble field. I can steal into that moment and wrap it around me until all the parts of it flow together and the three of us are joined, like concatenated images in a long poem.