It was when I looked out the wavy glass window of Edgar Allen Poe’s home in Philadelphia, in the room where his wife was slowly dying while he spilled out his words in dark tales, as if he could leak all the black out through ink. The walls were laid bare down to the original plaster, layers of other tenant’s lives stripped away, almost as a plea to peel back time and let us see Edgar at the window with us, an alternatively despairing or maniacally happy man, to ask him questions and see how his words look on his face rather than guess at their conveyance on paper.
It was as I surreptitiously reached out for the doorknobs, the stair rail, the old places where other hands touched and pushed and leaned.
Once in a high school science class we were made to line up and hold hands. Then the first person would reach out and touch an electric current in a device. It zinged through our joined hands, the last person receiving the full brunt of the jolt. I touch those doorknobs, I want to know how they felt in George Washington’s hand, in Poe’s hand, in my hand. I want to know them through their spaces; I want a jolt of recognition.
It’s as I wait for the tour guides to lead the group through to the next room that I steal a moment of silence in that old space, to hear how the silence sounds there. What is this longing all about?
Governor’s Palace, Colonial Williamsburg.
Palace kitchen, Colonial Williamsburg.
The Braun-Menendez Mansion in Punta Arenas, Chile. Alone in an exquisite room with all original pieces, looking here into the bureau mirror where the mistress of the home would have seen her own face reflected back.
Is it just intense curiosity? A passion for history? Latent anthropological interest? One further hazard of an overactive imagination?
It is, I know, why I gobble up period movies like a fiend. The “willing suspension of disbelief”, that’s how our drama teacher put it, what you need to be led into story on a stage or when watching a movie or even when reading a heart-pounding thriller (which is funny, isn’t it, that words on a page can make us all agitated?). It allows me to time travel in a way. I especially adore how the new “Pride and Prejudice” was filmed; the camera “looks” around the room as it pans, showing smudges on the walls, crumbs on the table, and all the glory of everyday life in an era I can only touch through doorknobs and imagination.
The attendant in the hall cleared her voice. I know she was wondering what I was doing in that lovely room, alone with a hefty camera. People normally come in, see the room, read the placard and move on. If she’d have asked, could I have really told her, that no, I wasn’t stealing the baubles or peeking in a drawer, that no, I was time traveling?