I've always been drawn to old things. Crumbling buildings, the faintly musty smell when a really old book is cracked open, antique inkwells, the way a broken down tractor rests leaning on its side as the earth grows back up around it – all of it appeals to me. All of it reminds me that time is not infinite and each moment is a gift.
Since I was a little girl, I've been called an old soul, and somewhere deep down, I've always known this about myself. Some kids ran headlong through the early years of their lives, carefree and lost in the endless daylight hours of summer but not me. Instead, I sought out the quiet places where I could lie on my back, my head resting on my beloved black Labrador named Sam, as we both listened to the steady late summer cicada rhythms and stared up at the sky so as to memorize every sensory detail. Somehow, I knew there would come a time when I would long to feel the warm sun prickling my skin or hear rush of sound a hawk's wings make when it flies low and fast overhead. I knew then my time with Sam was not infinite, that one day I would miss him so much my heart would break in two. Something deep down inside me always pulled at me as if I once longed for the beautiful details of this incredible earth. As if I had just returned from a far away place where the beauty of this world was only a faint and distant memory.
My first memory is of my great grandmother. My parents took me to see her in a nursing home. She was in her nineties with snow white hair, an incredibly weathered face, a sharp nose, and blue eyes that pierced through the air between us like a bird of prey eying its next meal. Her gnarled fingers held an unfiltered cigarette. I remember someone lighting it for her and then I remember the burning and sucking sound as she pulled in the entire cigarette in one single inhale, held it, then blew out a huge plume of smoke around her head. Over and over again, she called me Jimmy, her voice low and hoarse, and more than a little frightening. To this day my mom cannot understand how I remembered this so vividly, and neither can I. It defies explanation. I was only six months old. What six month old remembers details like this? What six month old remembers feeling pity because that woman's mind and heart were filled with so much anger and regret?
I have more memories filed away. Like when I was two or three, my beautiful, beloved grandfather took me to his workplace in New Haven, CT at the railroad. I held my grandfather's dark brown hat lined with silk in one hand. He held my other hand gently. We walked down the line of the dirty railroad workers. They smiled at me, some of them missing teeth, most of them wearing overalls or suspenders, their boots dusty, their eyes tired and worn down. We walked down that line as my grandfather presented me in this singular railroad tradition. The men patted me gently on the head and tossed coins or bills into the hat. After a while the hat became too heavy for me to hold with one hand so I wriggled my other hand free from my grandfather's and held onto his hat with all the strength I had in my small fingertips. I remember looking up at my grandfather, at his starched shirt and perfectly trimmed mustache. He was so proud of me, his first and only grandchild that he called his "tootsie pie." And I was bursting with pride to be by his side, to be someone he loved that much.
Afterwards, he put all the money into a piggy bank and told me that money was to be used one day for my college education even though none of my family had ever earned more than a high school diploma. I solemnly promised. Sixteen years later, I made good on that promise, cashing in the contents of that piggy bank as I prepared to leave for my first year away at college. Twenty-four dollars and sixteen cents certainly wouldn't pay my tuition but it wasn't about the amount. My grandfather, and all the men who worked on the railroad, had planted two seeds inside my mind on that day so many years before: hope and dreams. All of the children and grandchildren walked the railroad line towards a better life, a brighter future full of possibilities and potential and the money dropped into the hat was a reminder for all of them that they worked to make a better life for their families and we were their legacy.
In 2006, my grandfather sat beside me smiling on a glorious early May morning on the beautiful Wesleyan University campus. I wore a peach colored shirt and white tank top. He wore a powder blue button down shirt that matched his eyes.
The graduation ceremony during which I received my Master's degree had recently concluded. I don't remember a single part of that ceremony. I don't recall the speeches or whether I received my diploma from the dean or from the president. I don't recall wearing my cap and gown. All I remember about that day was sitting beside my "Poppy" as I called him, seeing the tears stream down his face when I was called up during a special Liberal Studies events to received the University's Rulewater Prize for my thesis project. He was so proud of me that day. And I was so proud to have made him feel so.
Right now as I write this, I can hear the tick tock of a small, square travel clock that used to be my grandfather's. I wind it each morning when I sit down to my desk to work. It's old and dated and doesn't look anything anything like all the new technology all around me.