Reflecting on the witness of a looking glass

Images on a cellphone camera are one thing. But what if I could access the moments my mirror has seen?

Linda Bleck

It’s a Regency mirror: three sections of beveled glass in a gilded wooden frame with dancing figures, a piping Pan, birds and trees in gesso. Sometimes called an overmantel mirror, it is the kind that sat on marble mantelpieces all over Europe during the last two centuries. It came down to me through my grandmother; I know its provenance only as far back as her mother, my great-grandmother. My connection with the mirror began in the Cotswold house where my grandmother lived late in her life. There it sat on a plain wooden mantel in the narrow dining room, where it reflected the windows opposite and our meals together.

Many things get handed down in families: jewelry, portraits, furniture, even toys. All carry memories. But a mirror, to me, provides a window into the individual and collective past, having reflected not only family members but also the history they lived through.

My artist great-grandmother, for instance, in her sitting room in London, sketching her daughters or writing the novels that added to her slim income, chairing meetings to organize the World War I Women’s Land Army that prefigured the British “land girls” of World War II. It might even have reflected visitors masked for that other pandemic, the Spanish flu.

Eventually the mirror migrated to the mantel in the library of my grandparents’ manor house near Oxford, England, a gathering place for their literary and artistic circle. Had the mirror seen Virginia Woolf on the night she asked my terrified then-teenage Aunt Alice what it was like to be 16 on an evening in June? T.E. Lawrence arriving by motorcycle to visit my grandfather? And with the coming of another war, my grandmother packing parcels for her sons at the front?

More important to me would be the reflection of my father and his siblings as children. My mother had her wedding reception at the house – did she glance in the mirror on that October day? Did it also show my father in his Royal Air Force uniform, home on leave?

Now it has reflected my daughter and my grandchildren. It hangs on the wall opposite the French doors to the garden. There it continues to mirror Christmas trees, summer roses, the Japanese maple brilliant in October, a succession of cats, even the long, dull days of the pandemic spent mostly within its view.

Before mirrors, people saw themselves only in the still surface of water. Before photography, mirrors provided the only undistorted images of oneself. Unlike a camera, however, a mirror returns your gaze. In folklore and fairy tales, mirrors could show the past or the future, the whereabouts of the lost, or answer an evil queen’s questions.

Is it because of technology, photographs stored on my cellphone, that I imagine that all those images are still present in the mirror somehow? If only, like Alice, I could go through the looking-glass. For this mirror is truly a looking-glass – it seems to look at me as much as I look at it. What I see, it sees.

And so the Graces dance around its frame, Pan pipes, the gesso birds fly, and the mirror records the days and seasons. Let’s hope this year will be filled with birds and trees, a year in which we too can dance.

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