THERE'S A LADY IN MY LOCKET
I didn't quite grasp the meaning of the poem when my grandmother read it to me. She retrieved an old book from a wooden chest that sat at the end of a four-poster bed. Once the lid was shut we sat on top of it. It was a sunny morning and my grandmother read the poem to me and followed by explaining a few things. The poem was "My Shadow" by Robert Louis Stevenson (1850–1894 Scotland) starting with the line "I have a little shadow that goes in and out with me." It was clear that poem was about the sun but there was more. She mentioned that I didn't have to follow her around the house as much as I did. She urged me to be independent and roam about by myself. I had mixed emotions about this discussion. I felt as if I was being reprimanded or cast off, and, more favorably, she was giving me permission to snoop around. It seems, even at age eight or nine, I tended to cling to others. Though it stung, my grandmother never held back in her attempts to teach me bluntly. She informed me that she was to deliver a flower arrangement to a church and that I was going to stay at home on my own. Moments like this turned into adventures where I could go through drawers, not disturbing things, but looking at the contents. After a few times alone wandering the house and getting to know all the corners, I asked her about the basement I had never been down there before and wanted to check it out. She looked at me with a prideful smirk and said that I was welcome to look at the basement, even though it was empty.
The basement had about seven rooms, of varying sizes, off of a larger center room. All the rooms were very clean, swept concrete with only a few items being stored. Windows and garden furniture were all that could be seen. A few of the rooms on one side of the house had tiny narrow windows placed high, letting in only a little of the outside light. In one of the smaller rooms under the kitchen there was depression in the wall. It was larger than a doorway and sunk in about one foot. It looked like a sealed entrance or a blocked off tunnel.
I stood before it several times, always returning to the spot out of curiosity. As I turned to leave, the concrete surface moved, becoming soft like handled play-dough. The area looked cloudy like a lens that had been smudged. I backed up and crouched behind a stack of wicker chairs. It was an astonishing moment, trying to grasp that the wall was changing. Soon the covering disappeared and people came through one-by-one, some arm in arm. I pushed back further into the wall with heightened amazement that kept my fear at bay. The people were black and mostly adult men and women. There were a few youth, perhaps older than me. Their clothes were somewhat worn and wrinkled, yet so many of them had glowing smiles, though serious. They were very quiet. Each carried bundles and bags of things. They traveled past me. I watched the procession through the woven wicker of the chair, moving my eyes about to take in as much as I could.
I grew concerned that perhaps I had caused them to come here and that they were filling the house before my grandmother returned to wonder where everyone had come from. I would have to try and explain, but maybe my grandmother already knew. Suddenly, a young girl saw me and came close. She approached the stack of chairs and looked down at me and into my eyes. "Who are you?" she asked. I stood, my legs were weak and I used the wall for balance. "My grandmother lives here."
"Oh, thank you. This is where we are staying tonight," she responded, adding "come on!"
We walked into the main room and the floor was covered with cots, blankets, and bundles of cushions. The people were settling in. She put her bag down on a mattress and motioned to the stairs with her hand. "I am supposed to help with eating,” she said. I followed her, and others, up the winding stairs and to the kitchen. The kitchen was not how I had left it. It was bustling with busyness. There were people using the big iron stove with all the burners, others were tossing flour onto tables and preparing bread loaves. No one seemed to see me other than this young girl. She smiled broadly as she took a station to cut vegetables.
I ventured to the back door and walked down the stairs into the most spacious of yards. There were no longer houses, walls, or fences on all sides, but big lush apple trees. There were men on ladders picking apples. Others were doing laundry and hanging clothing on a line, or doing dishes in a bin with hot water boiled on a small fire-pit. People were gloriously joyful. It is the only way to describe such a gathering.
The sun was shining and I heard birds. Assorted chattering came from the apple trees and the rooftop of the brick house. There were two dogs running about playfully. The bright light from the sun revealed a vaporous cloud that I was enclosed in. It moved with me and I could not break the seal to move outside of it.
A beautiful woman came through the kitchen door and down the stairs onto the grass where others met her with grace and honor. She was dressed in a dark tailored dress with a lace collar and tied ribbons adorning her layered skirt. Her hair was pulled back into a bun and she wore bands of material around her head with curls pulled back and loosely dropping from it. Around her neck was a long gold chain that reached far below her waist. At the end of the chain was a locket, big enough to fill the palm of a hand, like a pocket watch.
I couldn't take my eyes off her lovely smile as she gently glided about. Everyone adored her. She leaned over to inspect several bushels of apples, I moved closer to her. Someone called out to her. Mrs. Beckwith was her name. As she turned, her locket flew away from her body, rose in the air, entering my realm of mist. Thoughtlessly, I reached out to touch it. The locket stuck firmly in my hand causing the chain to break.
I panicked. There was no way I could return the locket to her; Mrs. Beckwith didn't even know that I was there. The locket stuck firmly in my hand, as if it belonged there. She looked frantically on the ground beneath her dress and all around. I stood there wishing to reverse time so that this moment never to exist. How silly of me to ever to desire to touch her locket. The wind started to kick up and the sun went behind the clouds. There was a chill in the air. She hollered for the others to begin collecting things and gave one last look behind her for the beloved locket. Her face was drawn and worried. I stood watching, feeling uncomfortable. Where was I? I wanted to go home. The awkward thing was that I was at the house that I wanted to return to. It now began to feel less familiar, less fun. It was dawning on me that I might have done something very wrong. I held my fear back and my tears in.
Off I darted, up the back stairs and through the kitchen, weaving in and out of the others' busy activity. Their voices became more muffled as I ran down to the basement to find the place where I had started, back to the little room and the stack of wicker chairs. I knelt to the floor and brought my hands to my chest. The locket was still firmly tucked into the palm of my hand.
I don't know how much time I spent crouched behind the stack of wicker chairs in the basement, wondering how to make everything return to the way it was. The tunnel was still open and there were people in the other room resting, mulling about, and quietly carrying on conversations. A few times I closed my eyes tightly, thinking that if I opened them quickly I would be back to where I started. It was as if there was a switch or code. I could not remember what tiny detail could have caused my grandmother's house to transport itself back to the early days with me in it.Finally I decided to go look in the tunnel. The walls were stone and the ground sloped down. The floor was partially cemented and then turned to dirt. The incline had thin wooden poles pressed into the dirt every so often, creating long stretches of stairs. I could see the tunnel turn and narrow. It was dark with slight lighting flickering from where the people had come. I was struck with sudden braveness as I began to walk down the tunnel clutching the locket in my hand. The air was moist and the smell was earthy. Each step became easier as I sensed a chance to find some answers. I came to a closed alley. The walls and floor were smoother stone and mortar and there were stacked crates and rows of barrels lining the walkway. At a distance, and through an iron gate, I could see and hear water sloshing about. I walked closer, pushed my nose through the gateway, and saw old boats rocking back and forth and could hear the old wood creaking all along a dock. The air was salty and moist while the sun hid behind a thick layer of even clouds. Suddenly a young boy appeared and asked, "What are you doing here?"
His appearance was a comfort to me. "I came from there," I announced as I motioned with my chin up the ally towards the tunnel opening. He was silent as he edged closer to look outside at the boats with me. "I don't know much about the tunnel and really can't talk about it." It is all I wanted to talk about and he must have felt my desperation and fear.
He continued, "You needn't be scared here. Are you hungry?"
"I must collect some of the suppers now" he said as he backtracked to a selection of barrels with the lids off. His hand went inside and pulled out dead birds to place them on a metal tray. The lifeless birds, wet and drippy, dropped with a thud. He loaded the tray with a thick layer of featherless bodies.
"What are those?" I asked. He chuckled loudly. "You must be joking. It is the passenger pigeon we are all sick of! They only cost pennies and it is what everyone is fed." I must have looked baffled.
"You've never had one? I guess I should ask more about you! I will be back."
I laughed too and for quite a few minutes it didn't matter that I was lost in time. I watched as he left the room, balancing a heavy tray in his hands. He seemed smart and strong and I imagined him coming home with me. I imagined without much detail how fun it would be to show him the future and how different things were.
I looked around the room as the sea wind came in and blew strands of my hair about. There were strips of meat hanging and piles of something that appeared to be bacon. Baskets lined in straw held root vegetables, green peas and apples. There were shelves filled with jars of jellies and two long tables with edges that held what appeared to be a thin layer of salt. As I looked closer I could see shapes of the fish bodies that were cut, fanned open, and without heads. All the while I held the locket tightly, opening my hand once for a glimpse to somehow remind myself of all that had happened up to this point. He returned briefly with another tray, this time filling it with fish. "It is cod. Have you had a cod before?" he asked with a slight smirk. "Yes!" I said, adding "But, not served like that!" while making a fake face of horror. "Your family must be part of the University then!"
Off he went. He was referring to Brown University, which takes up many acres on top of the seven hills that Providence is built upon. I knew this because my grandmother consistently mentions it and wants me to recite the names of the hills to her. I then noticed a table and chair. On the desk there was a newspaper, like a large pamphlet, called The Penny Magazine. Underneath the title it read The Society of the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge. Printed below the title was Published Every Saturday. The date on the paper was October 7, 1837. My mind could not even take in this faraway time. Up above the table was a shelf with more magazines. As I reached to flip the cover page, I heard footsteps coming down the stairs.
When he returned to the cellar he rattled a little wooden box. The box had a "J" carved into the side panel. He slid the top off and asked me to hold out my hand so that a few misshapen, light green colored ovals rolled into it. "What is it?" I asked as I examined the odd lump. "Gum," he replied. I popped it into my mouth and chewed. The aroma and taste was like a pine tree and like no gum that I have ever had. The texture of spruce gum seems more for eating than chewing, and that is what I did. After a short time I swallowed the hard waxy shape with a giggle and the pointing of my tongue. I liked the moment that we were sharing and we finally exchanged names. His name was Jeremy. Just like the little girl, he could see me and it occurred to me that perhaps children saw more than adults.
"I want to show you something!" I said with excitement as I felt now that I had a friend. I held open my palm and there the gold locket rested for both of us to see. "I want to give it to you!" I exclaimed as I thought it best that I keep it in this time and closer to the owner. Somehow Jeremy could find Mrs. Beckwith and return the locket to her. Jeremy touched my hand and closed all my fingers around the locket. He explained, "I can't take that. I would never be able to say where I got it. I could get in lots of trouble."
We stood, his hand on mine. It felt natural and in some way I felt older at that moment. It was quite apparent it was my first tingles of being smitten by a young man. I wanted to cry, move into his arms, and tell him that I am from a time in the future. I wanted him to tell me how to get back home.
"The locket is yours, but you need something to hang it on." He grabbed a thin strap from his work apron, ripped it off, and gently strung it through the locket's loop. I held it in front of me as he tied a knot behind my head. I held the locket in place and pressed it into my chest.
"I must go back upstairs. You can stay if you would like." My heart sank knowing he had work to do. I knew this was all to end and it was time for me to return to my grandmother's house. I turned and we naturally embraced our good-bye. "We'll meet again someday. I will always look for you,” he whispered in my ear.
Down the passageway to the tunnel I walked, as Jeremy watched. I waved as the turn to ascend upward appeared. I ran up the dark tunnel, the locket swaying around my neck. I saw light. I ran up, up and into the room that was now so familiar. The stack of wicker chairs was a comfort to see. I caressed the woven rims as I slid behind them, resting my forehead against the protective weaving. I closed my eyes tightly. I rested.
I opened my eyes after closing them tightly for some time and praying silently that everything would return to the way it was when I first entered the basement. When I prayed, I prayed to a God that was mine. A gentle being, easily found, but often busy. Patience was necessary. When I looked out through the wicker chairs, the tunnel was now closed. My heart raced with joy that my praying worked. Now that returning to my time seemed easy, I thought perhaps more praying could take me back, bypassing the mysterious thing that triggered my visit to the past in the first place.
I leaped up and ran to the sealed tunnel with an open hand, placing it and my cheek against the chilly wall. I thought of Jeremy, locked on the other side. He might even be dead. I walked to the main room and it was clear of all the bedding and baggage. The room was now empty but for the windows and assorted lawn furniture. I raced up the stairs and entered the kitchen I remembered. Things were orderly and quiet. Outside, I saw no apple orchards, only a tall brick wall that separated us from the neighbor, the wooden fence on another side, and the wrought iron gate. The brick patio was there with its outside fireplace. A crow cawed in the distance. I ran upstairs to my room and sat on the chaise near the window. In the palm of my hand the gold locket, with the soft string that Jeremy added to it, sparkled in the light. Finally, I opened the locket that belonged to Mrs. Beckwith. She was inside under layers of glass. I angled the locket to find the right position to get a good look. It is amazing that I had seen her, that I know her. Then I noticed, on the other side, a staunch man.
When I closed the locket, they spent hours staring into each other's eyes. I sensed that this couple was deeply in love. I slipped the locket under my pillows and layers of bedding for safekeeping.
My grandmother returned and we went about our day as usual. We played checkers and one of her friends came for a cocktail. After dinner, I bathed and prepared for sleep. Under the weight of the covers I went through the details of the day. My grandmother came into my bedroom to say goodnight. As she walked to the doorway for the evening, I blurted out "Who is Mrs. Beckwith?"
My grandmother returned to my bedside with an approving look for my curiosity. "Well, she is the original owner of this house. Her husband, Mr. Beckwith, built it for her. There is a duplicate house down the hill built by Mr. Beckwith's brother for his wife." She continued "At that time, the whole hill was filled with apple trees."
"What about the odd looking wall in the basement that looks like a tunnel?" I asked.
She moved closer to the bedside to answer. "That was a tunnel down to the canal. Mrs. Beckwith helped to free slaves. They would travel from the South and come up the tunnel to rest here before continuing to Nova Scotia. It was called the Underground Railroad." She tucked me in again and moved her eyes about my face as she looked into my eyes. "Tomorrow, I will show you some of her clothes that are packed away on the third floor."
After My Grandmother left the room, I pushed my hand under my pillow in order to hold the locket. I thought about the power of love, the effort to build a house, and to plan and dig a tunnel. This women in love was useful in helping others and I wondered if this is the way love worked. I knew that I had to know love. I needed to find my love.
My Grandmother's home via Google maps
Old Baptist Church, Providence, RI
Providence, Rhode Island by John Ruben Smith 1775-1849
The real locket
Audubon - Passenger Pigeon
Passenger Pigeon hunt
Etching of Brown University's start (1771), Providence, RI.
The Penny Magazine, Published in United Kingdom and New England 1832-1845
Spruce gum box and spruce gum
View of Roger William's Providence from Fort Adams
MY GAMMA WAVES
A love story involving a 21st century artist, a woman who experiences a "breakthrough." Past, present, and future merge in thirteen stories that express different forms of love.
Set in different regions and times, thirteen interconnecting lives explain why specific contemporary artworks were made.
My Gamma Waves is a story that presents the iconography of the artist's personal cosmology.
Early excerpts (2000-2002)
There's A Lady In My Locket
Waterfalls of White
Elevator to Somewhere