Impressions from the Land of Vanished Beautiful Things by Stephen Mead

When Alice fell down the rabbit hole on her way to Wonderland it was not an ordinary tunnel of dirt and plant roots through which she plunged. I know this by remembering the childhood copy of the book our family had. On the cover of this book Alice is wearing some sort of light blue pinafore over a blouse with white puffy sleeves and a matching white band in her blonde hair. Her arms and legs are bent at their joints and a little bit spread-eagle but Alice looks more surprised than worried, and in the brown background are shelves upon shelves of leather bound books. Apparently this white rabbit is scholarly and has a library to be proud of. The tomes in this rabbit’s bookcases seem to be as treasured as the copy of “Alice in Wonderland” which opened in my small childhood hands.
In good moments this is how my memories come: clear, distinct, without underlying psychological baggage. In such an instance I can, for example, remember the Christmas angel made by my father’s sister which was the last ornament to top the trees of our family’s holidays for more than a decade. The angel’s body was made of a cardboard dowel, hollow of course so as to fit over the apex of pine just right, but over this dowel was the top torso of a doll’s body with elegant shoulders, a pearlescent gown and hands clasped to hold either a piece of sheet music or a candle. The more I concentrate the more I’m pretty sure that the held scroll was choral for the lips of the angel’s haloed china head formed an “oh”. Light silver mesh covered the gown while a veil of small gold leaf stars decorated the angel’s head, her dark hair cut in a bob of Snow White meets Prince Valiant. From photos I know that this was how my Aunt, who died young of rheumatic fever, wore her hair as well, thus I always associated the angel with the spirit of my Aunt, a tender vigilant presence among the Christmas tree lights.
Other memories seem to come a long way over the hills and valleys of my cerebrum and cerebellum. Some of these ghosts of gray matter are like war-weathered soldiers, others, vagabond-like and occasionally ragamuffin. These waifs are less Dickensian but more like the sort out of Hans Christian Anderson, rather forlorn from vague travails I can’t quite put my finger on. I try but they shift, pop up and down here, now there, in some cerebral game of whack-a-mole.
This essential illusory quality of memory, of living itself, by organic osmosis, has formed a large core of my art. I have filled so much paper and canvass with the outlines of beings superimposed. These beings may be lovers, friends, family members or related by an indirect kind of intimacy, a struggle against racism or homophobia or some other underlying connecting bond of emotional commonality. The symbolic integrity is in the details of how colors may blend together or how what goes on, collage-like, under, over, between the outlines, creates different ways of viewing, even feeling, the whole. Writing of memory is also a piecemeal way of understanding life, trying to grasp what is apparently transparent but often intensely visceral while experienced. After all, in the midst of remembering something a person may not be in that place, and certainly not in that time, any more. A person may be looking out a window at quite some other scene, an ocean, or a busy city street for instance, while the memory is a film, a slideshow, a chrysalis of sensations going on simultaneously throughout the interior landscape.
When I think of the room which served as a living space for more than one family member, just at different times, this is what occurs: an overlapping. This overlapping, like the slowly twisted body of a kaleidoscope blurring to a lens of clarity, is especially true when some of the objects and furnishings in the room remained the same though different family members made use of them on the timelines of heritage, perspective, change and mortality. Specifically I am thinking about the room above the living room in the farmhouse I grew up in, a room that in some households may have served as an attic, but for my grandmother, then my parents, and then for my brother, was actually a bedroom, the size perhaps of a studio flat.
Gray stairs led to this chamber, behind a wooden door of cracking molasses-brown varnish. The interior of that door had a crackling-effect to its off-white patina too, and as one climbed the sturdy steps an air of dusty pink opened up; pink even over the slight slant mid-way up the stairwell where sheet metal of an old wide heating vent was covered in plaster. I don’t recall a handrail so much as a pink walls used for balance and guidance, pink like the color of ventricles to a heart and walls which were like cave drawings for the repeated millions of fingerprints from the people who came up and down those stairs. At the top of the right wall was a gray painted hinged circular lid, a lid which was like a ship’s portal whose interior was filled with insulation since this hole had been part of the stovepipe inner sanctum once used to heat the farmhouse. This hole matched another one higher in the center of the slightly slanted piece of sheet metal midway up the stairs, and a third in the wooden floor right next to the white banisters.
This network of vanished heating pipes created a different sort of portal for my siblings and I while growing up, for of course we did view these holes as something nautical, that they had the function of periscopes or large barometers for invisible submarines perhaps. We’d find some way to pop the hinged lids open, remove the circular dry wall cut-outs, and call messages through these flue-passages, messages of danger danger, be on the alert, messages of novice Morse code. My daredevil brother was even able to stand with legs spread on either side of stairwell cavity, disregarding the distance to stairs beneath in order to reach that mid-wall second chimney stopper, though of course my parents were less than impressed by such risks. Just one more way to fall, break a neck and see how you like it pretty much sums up their reaction to his acrobatics.
At the very top of the stairs, across from the loop of string which turned the ceiling light on, was a solid dark wooden chest. If this was meant to be a hope chest than its thick black lacquer suggested my grandmother’s prospects must have run towards the gothic if not downright bleak. Even in its lid was not hinged but a heavy slab that slid to the side like an opening to a mausoleum casket. In hindsight I’m relieved that this chest never entered my nightmares, its Pandora lid slowly inching to reveal body parts of Blue Beard’s brides, for I’m fairly certain my brother encouraged such bump-in-the-night fancies. Mainly what I remember it holding was the dense scent of its own woodsy heat and blanket piled upon blanket; many of these quilts of course being hand-stitched in traditional star patterns. From the scraps of old clothes, triangles of flannel joined up with squares of printed cotton, these traces of bunting backed by the durable cloth used to tuck ancestry up under one’s chin on long winter nights. The chest also had a couple of side compartments. One held a Parcheesi board crafted from maple coasters, and the other a mother-of-pearl pair of opera glasses in a purple beaded bag with a golden snap. I believe we played games of espionage with these miniature binoculars as opposed to Evenings of Madame Butterfly Live from the Met.
The ceiling of this room was more than trapezoidal; having at least seven angles bending to match the shingled roof above, though right down the center a full grown adult could stand up straight without banging his head. In retrospect I see this bubblegum pink painted room as being shaped like the interior of a barn and, like a barn, its temperature was either very hot in the summer or very cold November through March. It also only had three white-trimmed windows, two squat horizontal rectangular ones in the front and one regular-sized vertical rectangle to their left. This created a dimness in the room that was ideal for private sojourns of refreshing rest unless one’s temperament was more maudlin and claustrophobic in which case the front windows seemed like steely eyes. Luckily the former was the case for my grandmother and most likely my parents, (though they only took the bedroom for a very short time while my grandmother lived in their bedroom during her last illness), whereas since my brother had the bedroom under the hormonal pendulum of teenage years, any Heathcliff broodiness was naturally par for the course. Even I feel a great sense of lassitude mixed with the forbidden, keep out, for the years he dwelled there, but that comes from his typical stance of independence in the necessity of finally having a room of one’s own versus the thoroughfare of the one he shared with me.
Given the angles of the ceiling the placement of furnishings was fairly consistent no matter who slept up there, even if the actual pieces of furniture changed with each occupant. There was always someone’s wooden antique dresser with its hinged oval mirror next to the stair banisters on the left-hand side of the room, an antique wooden wardrobe in the center of the windowless right wall, and always a bed with some sort of antique headboard in the middle of the room. Actually, though my brother and I have had more time on earth together than either of us had with my grandmother, even if it feels as though he had squatter’s rights on the bedroom the longest, since that was pretty much an off-limits place to me during that time, my clearest memories of the bedroom fall under grandma’s reign and thus have greater warmth. (Either that or given my age and how Alzheimer’s works that is the real basis for these oldest memories being the stronger.)
The head and footboard of my grandmother’s bed were a green-tinged brass and rose like the steeples and turrets of some medieval castle. They even had the elegant arabesques between the four-poster poles at each end. I was allergic to the pillows and mattress, all made of down, but loved being able to feel the occasional spine and quill squeezed through fabric between fingers. The bed was also great for napping, being small and getting lost in the depths of its queen sized contours. Between the front windows there was a hard backed love seat with thick fuchsia cushions great for curling up in and peering out the rear slats like a monkey, or lying the full length of, poking skinny arms and legs out of the holes made by armrests, and singing row, row, row your boat as gently down the stream grandma merrily joined in as a resonant echo. Beside the loveseat was a round piano stool whose seat had the circles of a tree and could be screwed up and down. This stool had three curved legs carved like lion’s feet at the tips and she placed her Christmas cactus on it with a lace doily beneath. The cactus bloomed from having been in the sun under the front Catalpa throughout the summer.
I remember the red-tinged waxen curls of the blossoms falling on the thin Oriental rug when placed back upstairs. I remember my grandmother going back and forth with her carpet sweeper, the thick beige nylon of her legs, her house dresses which came below the knees and, against that, either an apron or a cardigan sweater or both. The twin doors of her pine wardrobe painted with something green and floral in design, had hooks on their insides where other such frocks and sweaters hung, while on the higher shelf and top were hatboxes filled with creations of elaborate feathers, ribbons, beads or veils. I think one was even covered with miniature dove nests completed by eggs of pearl.
Next to this was a washstand with a faux marble top and rods on the sides for a washcloth and towel. The front of this washstand also had double wooden doors, cedar stained with keyholes under the gold knobs that clicked them in place. On the faux marble top, made of milk white china, was grandma’s pitcher and bowl. Before pulling up her slip for the day grandma would pour the silvery water out and sponge-bathe, lifting each breast natural and innocent as if before the eyes of her Lord. Then there was the powder with its puff of vanilla or lilies of the valley. Along with the pitcher and bowl was the round dish for bobby pins, the caramel square of beeswax she polished with, the matching tortoiseshell-backed brush, mirror and comb.
Sometimes, on holidays or before church, Dutch reformed, grandma wore a little bit of make-up. There was mainly a small compact for powdering the nose and a pot of rouge that might serve as lipstick too. I don’t think she had the fancy roll-out kind Mom had, but the rouge was ruby and the little circles on lips and cheeks easily smoothed in. Occasionally grandma let me try a little on lips and cheeks as well and together we looked beautiful, especially with the costume jewelry accessories, the necklaces of beads long enough to be looped double or the earrings like ruby teardrops which screwed in to the lobes. If my brother saw me like this he would say I was a fairy-nice-fellow and asked if I took a Fem-iron vitamin like the tired housewives in the TV commercials.
Later, older, the few times he let me up in his room he had it decorated with purple lights, glow-in-the-dark posters and a glowing plastic skull. He listened to Rush, Pink Floyd, and grew mary-jew-wanna behind the barn until mom found out. On some summer nights he’d take the screens out of the front and we’d crawl past where the windows, like stiff mirrored wings, swung into the room. Sometimes our sister joined us. It would be late, dark, quiet, and we knew we could not let our parents know. Often the quiet was punctuated by the clank, metallic squeals, whistles and clangs of the railroad over the hill. Over that same hill was often a greenish glow from the plastics plant which changed that part of the sky into Emerald City fog.
The shingles of the roof would be cool, leaving little bits of rough grit against our palms, forearms, knees and feet as we shuffled around, occasionally being brave enough to stand, our silhouettes matching the tallness of the surrounding trees. The leaves of these whispered of calm, of peace, as did the rustling of the lilac bush on one side, the wisteria on the other. Sometimes those scents rose in the air’s fading mugginess while lightning bugs flickered in the outlying fields below.
Still waters running deep, I don’t think we reminisced aloud much about grandma, her daughter who died young, or even her husband who also died before we came on the scene but who built this house whose roof we scampered upon. Our waters resembled the streams of dad’s in that respect, a reticence in the bloodline which did not stem from lacking reserves of sorrow. We know these people were still honored by their photos on the downstairs mantel or the books of yellowing sheet music piled in rooms for a piano no one now living in the house knew how to play. We ruminated in silent reverie about these beings through the things they left behind when done with living in the rooms we who came after now occupied.
Above and beyond us the stars would go on with their wondrous performance as more cosmos seemed to open up further the longer that we gazed. Occasionally there was the distraction of passing planes and vapor trails to follow, the good distant drone of engines, the tiny flashing of red and blue lights, and the hope for a U.F.O. to really liven things up. Hazy overcast nights were mellowing but of course we preferred skies of cirrus against onyx and full blood orange moons slowly turning to polar craters we would look for a face in. Even then we knew how small we were yet could take comfort in the infinitesimal scope of it all. Our spirits were more enormous than we realized, maybe finding some kind of faith in the night before crawling back in through the windows, the protective solitude of our sensitive selves tested again and again every time we ventured, homesick and shy, into the wide unknowable world.

About the Author:

Stephen Mead is an Outsider multi-media artist and writer. Since the 1990s he’s been grateful to many editors for publishing his work in print zines and eventually online. He is also grateful to have managed to keep various day jobs for the Health Insurance. Currently he is resident artist/curator for The Chroma Museum, artistic renderings of LGBTQI historical figures, organizations and allies predominantly before Stonewall, The Chroma Museum