Though I’ve read the equivalent of Relativity for Dummies, I’ll never understand how Einstein came up with the idea of massive objects warping deep space, bending light, and dilating time. It was 1905, and soon he’d claim the General Theory of Relativity was his “happiest thought.” Maybe some of his glee came from bending people’s minds.
Regarding time, it’s said a few present-day astronomers use the Hubble Space Telescope to watch supernova stars blow themselves to smithereens again and again. What I know is this: if I had a telescope able to see across space/time, I too would revisit the events of my younger life and those of my genetic predecessors. I would do this to see how my “me-ness” developed, see how and why I discarded institutions that were “not me” when—and if—I did. From a safe distance, I’d look at my parents’ marriage and my own two marriages and divorces and try to discern how the women in my family, coupled and uncoupled, used our respective smidgeons of time.
What moments would I relive, you ask? None of them.
I decided this at 17 when I read Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town the first time. I still cry at the scene where the character Emily Webb, who has married at 17 and dies in childbirth at 26, watches her own funeral from her grave.
Who can blame Emily for not wanting to be dead? Looking at her family grieving beside her newly closed casket, she asks her mother-in-law, who is with her on cemetery hill, whether a person can go back to life. Mother Gibbs, by then accustomed to having left bodily living behind says, Don’t do it.
Emily turns to the Stage Manager, a character and guide existing apparently outside the space/time continuum, and he agrees. Emily should not choose to go back to life. It will hurt.
You not only live it, but you watch yourself living it, the Stage Manager cautions. When Emily insists, he relents. Choose the least important day in your life. It will be important enough.
I agree. It’s all important. Emily chooses a day that shouldn’t matter much—her twelfth birthday, February 11th, 1899. It’s dawn, icy, a typical morning about four years before Emily and George Gibb, her classmate, neighbor, and future husband will have a talk during which they realize their love for each other. By their wedding day, they will both admit feeling fear about getting married and having children, and the audience will hear the countervailing logic of the Stage Manager: Most everybody in the world climbs into their graves married.
He states this as fact, foregoing any speculation as to why. He doesn’t bring up peer pressure or cultural expectations, rather human nature. Yes, he says, people are meant to go through life two by two. Tain't natural to be lonesome.
Seventeen again I watch Emily, 12 again, suddenly able to perceive her life with the awareness time and death lend. Dismayed and in pain—so many important moments went by unnoticed—she pleads to return to her grave, then hesitates. Wait! One more look.
This time Emily poignantly says good-bye to life’s beauty and pain, and then turns again to the Stage Manager. Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it...every, every minute?
No, he says. The saints and poets, maybe—they do some.
I’m not interested in reliving life. I don’t want a do-over, but I do wish I’d realized life more. I scour memories trying to fathom why I made choices that have turned out to matter very much. How did I get the idea I would be left on the shelf if I didn’t marry in my twenties? How did I marry twice, knowing both times it didn’t feel right? I’m forced, due to my memory’s feeble telescope, to watch scenes from my past, certain I perceive them imperfectly. Nonetheless I persevere, play them over and over, probably distort them. I admire philosopher Nicolas Malebranche, evidently a saint and a poet, who wrote: Attentiveness is the natural prayer of the Soul.
Shall I try math? If Emily Webb were real and aged 12 in 1899, she was relatively the same age as my grandmothers who both long outlived her. In contrast to Emily, on the one hand, my Irish grandmother Frankie, third born among seven sisters, didn’t marry until she was 30. She waited her turn. And her youngest sister stayed unmarried all her life.
On the other hand, my half French-Canadian, half Norwegian grandmother, Sophie, finished eighth grade at 16 and married my grandfather. He’d finished fifth grade at 12 and had been working for five years on his father’s farm. My mother married at 22.
I feel a homey warming in my solar plexus thinking of them—a phantom umbilical cord. As for marriage, I did it at 22 as expected but divorced at 28, becoming the first in the family ever to divorce. I married again at 30, tried and failed to have children, and at 35 finally delivered a child who lived. By 49, I’d failed to stay married for the second time.
Time goes on dilating and contracting. A dozen years ago, I become my family’s matriarch and oldest member. More and more, I ponder the female kin who’ve gone before me—I’ll be an ancestor relatively soon, and one who climbs into her grave having been unmarried for most of her life. So why do I, so temporarily here, spend large amounts of time creating family trees of married women on Ancestry.com and watching reality TV shows about wedding dresses? I have so many questions. Didn’t the stage manager in Our Town say there is something eternal in each of us, even if we don’t go through life two by two? Let me look up those lines again.
MARY JO THOMPSON'S poetry collection, Stunt Heart, was selected for the Backwaters Poetry Prize. Her work has appeared in Best American Poetry, North American Review, The Journal, Missouri Review, Field, Prairie Schooner, Rhino, Indiana Review, Carolina Quarterly, Spillway, and Beloit Poetry Journal. Thompson lives with her dog, Pico, on Nicollet Island. http://maryjothompson.org/