Thursday, November 25, 2010

A Hand in the Mirror

Once, I saw a photograph of a painting of the Vietnam War Memorial Wall in Washington DC. A small boy stood with his hand pressed against a name etched into the black stone. From behind the wall, a phantom-like soldier in Jungle fatigues, M-16 in one hand, pressed his hand against the wall so his palm met, from behind, the boy's palm. A father and son reached through a wall of tears to briefly, contact what both lost.

The poignant painting depicted life from both ends, allowing it to meet in the middle as if in defiance of time and space.

I always believed that Christmas transcended time and space too. That regardless of who we lost the previous year, or who we gained through marriage or birth, the fluidity of the season scooped all together in its embrace.

Wistful naivety or pensive innocence, yet somehow, I’ve since learned I was wrong, but acceptance of error came long after awareness.


The too cold night air filtered around the old red painted wooden front door despite my best efforts at weather stripping. The kit I bought, made in China of course, did not provide enough glue so I made do with some I had left over from a summer project.

Outside on the door, we hung an artificial wreath as if hanging one crafted out of real pine boughs might prove us cruel and inhuman. It bore a large shiny, plastic red ribbon and a string of brass bells too thin to ring or chime with any amount of authority. Shaking them was, to me cruel and inhuman when I listened to their pathetic tinkle.

Along with the chill that breezed into the living room, a light frost coated the edges of the windows, and fogged the ornate antique mirror hung in the narrow foyer. The mirror, passed down through the family for a half-dozen generations, had a gilded frame with an early nineteenth century style eagle perched on top. The eagle's pose made me envision, the first time I saw it, the massive bird leaping into the air, talons extended to tear into its unsuspecting prey.

Of course, he would need to first drop the arrows and olive branches, but I always believed that eagles were as close to mythical creatures as any I might ever see, like eight tiny reindeer's hooves clattering the slate roof tiles overhead.

The mirror glass was convex, bulging out like the roof of a dome, distorting images as if the designer knew something about human vanity I did not or could not conceive of.

By that night, Christmas Eve, I had walked past the mirror dozens, or hundreds of times and never used it as a mirror, mostly ignoring its presence. Perhaps, that elucidates my self-importance too well.


Of course, the old glass surface sparkled where the rear silvering remained intact. There were several frayed patches blackened by time's abuse, as the years steadily ate off the silver like a troll collecting coins from those who dared cross his bridge. I never saw any silver flakes sparking light from the floor beneath the mirror and so could never imagine where the flakes went.

The mirror hung high at eye level, which for me was about five foot six. If you stood much taller, you would need to stoop to have your reflection badly twisted into a fisheye distortion of vanity. No one used any mirror to see how bad they looked, so seldom did anyone stop to use this one after the first glance.

The condensation gathering around the edge of the gilded frame worried me. The wood was, after all, more than two hundred years old. How much moisture would be required to damage it, and perhaps loosen the old animal hide glue used by the carpenter when he assembled the pieces in his post-colonial workshop long ago?

There were some scrawled numbers and the letter S written in black paint or ink by him on the rear of the mirror but nothing that made sense beyond the assumption that they represented an inventory, style, or design number. The man remained anonymous in my mind. I might picture his hand-sewn clothing, tools, workshop, stained, and work hardened hands, broken fingernails, a splinter, or two, even his features to some degree. He may have smoked an old style ceramic pipe with a bowl shaped like a head wearing a billed cap, as those now found in archaeological digs. Yet, I would never know more, not his name, or where he lived, and worked.

I remembered that once, when no one was around to see, I smelled the mirror, front, and back. It reminded me of nothing but dried wood and old paint, which felt like a disappointment.

While the mirror was so vividly in my mental focus, I went into the kitchen, retrieved some paper towels, and returned to the foyer planning to clean the moisture off the mirror before company arrived.

As I stood directly before its dome-like surface, I received the usual shocking visual jolt. My nose appeared twice its already large size. A Morris nose, I once heard from my mother's cousin, herself a Morris but without the nose bestowed on male descendants only no doubt.

I moved slightly to the left and raised the paper towel to clean the surface, stopped before reaching my goal and stared at a small feminine handprint that covered from the bottom left center to just over the center of the mirror's curved glass.

Each fingerprint loop and swirl stood out clearly, as if I examined the hand not its image. I noticed the slight bend to the center knuckles of two fingers twisted by age and arthritis. The palm bore the fruits of accidents from years past that resided there in the form of spider web thin scars.

The feel of her flesh against my hand became as vivid as any memory I retained from the time I spent with her. It was not an intimate contact, but at first casual and later as family, welcomed and encouraged. The memories cascaded then, nearly overwhelming me as I found I could not pull away from the mirror that until then was nothing more than an ornamental test of one's narcissism.

It wasn't until I heard her voice speaking to me as if she'd just entered the foyer from outside as she kicked the snow from her boots and carefully peeled the soft cotton-lined leather gloves from her hands after removing her snow dampened wool hat that I looked away from the mirror. Everything she wore always matched, color and style.

I turned to face her and from the corner of my eye, saw movement in the convex surface of the mirror. It had to have been me, but I swore then it was not. The light brown eyes seemed to twinkle, the corners of lips rose in a warm smile, and then, when I glanced directly at the mirror, my breath clouded its surface, erasing any image I may have seen.

Someone raised and dropped the large bronze knocker alerting me that the first of my guests arrived. Before responding, I lifted the mirror off its hook and placed it carefully against the back wall of a seldom-used closet.

I'm having it restored, I practiced in my head as I walked by the now blank wall with an oval fade at eye level. Having it restored. It's so good to see you! How have you been? Have you eaten yet?

Then I opened the door and watched a small parade of relatives walk up the shoveled sidewalk as I forced a smile knowing that would be what she wanted done, and reached out to greet them one by one.


Copyright property of Larry Schliessmann, 2010 all rights reserved.

For the previous 14 years, I wrote a Christmas story for my mother-in-law Ruth Whalen Gaul. She loved writing, had written Christmas plays for children while living in Charlotte, North Carolina, and actively participated in a Charlotte writer's group.
She passed in July of this year, but when I wondered if I should or even could write another Christmas story this year, the above stuttered out.

Happy Holidays to all
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