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Published: Wed Jul 1 2009
Diego Isaias Hernández Méndez, El Fracoso de los Texeles / The Failure of the Church Women (detail), 2004, oil on canvas. Arte Maya Tz’utujil Collection.

Schimmelpenninck: Made in Holland. A dented little tin taken down from the cluttered top shelf of the bookcase behind my attic desk, a bookcase that has become one of my default reliquaries, kind of like the mesh sieve in the kitchen drain that catches everything left from the wash-up of a family meal, except that the sieve then gets emptied into the kitchen trash while the sentimental refuse of living just accumulates. I picked it up in the spirit of ‘you have to start somewhere,’ but also with a certain confidence. I am, after all, the writing teacher who quotes to his students the line from Flaubert: “Anything becomes interesting if you look at it long enough.” And I do believe it, interest being the discovery of connections that feel as if they are leading somewhere, marking a path. It is the product of attention. Look! Look closer! What do you see? Start with the eye and see what happens. Pray, as Lowell did, for the grace of accuracy. Schimmelpenninck. Well, the little tin is there to be looked at, but it would be nothing to me—sentimentally, associatively—if it weren’t for the sound and look of that word. A word that means absolutely nothing to me. A brand of cigarillos, yes. A little choo-choo train of m’s and n’s. Just above it on the tin a small inset image of a high-browed and peruked gentleman with a stiff collar and a formal-looking flow of white cloth, almost a bib, where a tie would ordinarily go. Herr Schimmelpenninck? Or is this the king of Holland offering his imprimatur on the product? It could just as well be Goethe, there’s that same projection of entitled nobility. Doesn’t matter. But the whole effect, and probably the reason I kept the thing, is very haute-European. And I know where this thread—it is fine and twisty—leads. Back to the drawer of my father’s desk, upstairs in our old house in Michigan. That desk, its top right drawer I realize now also a reliquary, was a regular stop for me as I made my way through the rooms. Alone, bored—it seems I was both for years at a stretch—I snooped and sifted through every cranny of my parents’ lives, looking for god knows what, looking for confirmation of something, maybe the concealed document testifying to my true origins, I don’t think it mattered what, only that I keep alive the feeling that there was something to be found. As if in the scattered stuff of my parents’ lives lay the secret, the missing card that completed the deck. I never found it, but the charged-up idle investigating brought me right up against all sorts of things—I mean literal things, bundled letters, peculiar artifacts of completely mysterious provenance, like a tiny elephant figurine, and an ancient cigarette lighter that I was clumsy in disassembling—that I broke—and that my father confronted me with in a fury, How dare I—? Did I have any idea what that meant? This was a lighter he had found during the war, while he was making his way from one place to another, escaping—He wouldn’t tell me the story—he added it to the pile of things he would one day explain about his life. And I nodded solemnly and promised to leave his things alone, knowing as I did that I would be back, only more careful. The point is that I was right! These things of theirs, throughout the house, but in this drawer, were soaked in significance; they held clues. At least some of them did. How to know which? Without the stories I couldn’t. So I had to imagine everything there was a possible clue. I can hear the sound of that drawer rolling open. And there was the tin of Schimmelpennincks. With real cigarillos in it, just under the stiff waxy paper. Maybe a few missing. I can picture—or imagine—my father lighting one in the late evening, with a whisky drink. But really he smoked cigarettes, a few a day, Benson & Hedges, also there in the drawer. The Schimmelpennincks must have been a gift. From a client, a European friend. They had that feeling. I probably took one out and put it between my lips, then carefully replaced it. Much as a girl might try out just a bit of her mother’s lipstick. We want to pretend, but really we want to get in close, as close as we can.

But this tin here, my tin, is not that. I can’t remember how I came by it, but I know it was not from my father. I think I may have bought it during one of my attempts to quit smoking, figuring I could allow myself one cigarillo a day, my reward for restraint. If I bought them—I’m pretty sure I did, from Leavitt & Pierce in Harvard Square—I would have done so both for the association and for the fact that the cigarillos themselves were the length and basic shape of cigarettes. Enough about that. There are other things about the tin. The fact that I have things in it. When I picked it up from the shelf of course I gave it a shake. Coins. And maybe something else. But I wasn’t holding my breath with any thought of treasure. I have little gangs of pennies everywhere. Pennies flock to me. I empty my pockets at the end of the day and leave them on the nearest surface, and then the clutter gets to me and I sweep them in to jars and tins. Nothing unique here. The Schimmelpenninck is just another container with stray pennies. Not like that little box—and where on the crowded planet is it now?—that I had all through my later childhood with my Indianhead pennies.  Such aura they had, and would have now—compounded by time and loss—if I were suddenly to find them now. But no, once I had the tin on the desk in front of me, I opened to confirm. Pennies, pennies…and a button, the kind you clip to your lapel, with a rainbow design and the words Mikrofons and Aptauja and the number 81. And: a neatly folded scrap of thin beige-salmon paper that I recognize instantly as Latvian. I have never seen paper of this color and consistency anywhere else. The button I place right away—a small souvenir from a trip I took to Latvia, by myself, in the early 1980s—was it 1981? Mikrofons refers to a pop radio station in Riga, I think, and Aptauja—here is one of the many words that marks the line of my outsiderness. I grew up speaking Latvian at home, I remain moderately fluent, and older Latvians often remark with surprise how well I speak for someone who doesn’t use the language regularly, but there must be thousands of words like this one, Aptauja, that I just don’t know. And because of those words I feel at a permanent remove, lacking some secret password, the very same thing I remember feeling on the playground when kids used tags and phrases I hadn’t learned yet. How did they know to be yelling ‘batterbatterbatter’ so confidently at our recess games. I mouthed the syllables but felt completely exposed…

Finally, that folded scrap of paper. Unfolding it, I see that it’s a ticket: Andreja Upisa LPSR Valsts Akademiskais Dramas Teatris. The theater. Stamped for October 10, 1982. I remember being taken to a play, I don’t remember what it was, not a hint of anything that might have transpired on stage, though there is a secondary sensory memory, a small cloud of feeling: the space was plush, baroque-feeling; the lights were warm. And I know that when I later read Chekhov’s “Lady With a Lapdog,” when Gurov travels to the provinces to find Anna and attends the theater—where he first sees her again—it is this place I picture. But so is everything I read of Russian literature somehow embellished by my various Latvian exposures, whether memories of being in Riga at different times—the feeling of stairwell, the look of windows and sills, the Slav faces at kiosks—or my own imaginings projected into the stories I heard growing up, from my parents, but more richly from my grandmother, Um, who had such a store of memories from her life, and who trumped other tellers just by reaching farther back—her tales of the farm, of trains, soldiers, there was the real redolence.

  1. Set against those stories of Um’s, the reach they offered into what felt like the timeless time when things had weight and the world was the way it had been forever—an illusion!—not changing every minute and becoming wispy-light, 1982 is nothing at all. And for a long time it wasn’t. 1982 was around the corner, just down the street, right here. But right now it is far away as a lit auditorium in Riga in what was still the Soviet era, marked for me now by that off-textured paper with its date and place, which I have just now refolded along its creases and replaced in its Schimmelpenninck tin.

Photo: Father-in-Law. We have framed photographs of parents and grandparents from both sides of the family in various parts of the house—on the downstairs bookshelves, over Lynn’s desk, and along the dresser top in the nondescript room that is really more like a wide passage to our bedroom than anything else. They are so familiar that I rarely look closely, though when I do it’s like a porthole suddenly opening onto some very deep business. You can only have so many full-strength visitations in any given period, when you look and really grasp someone’s likeness in its place and time. It’s like breaking into a different zone—you actually feel what that person was like when you were with them. But it never happens the same way twice. If the photo doesn’t change, we do. Take the small framed color shot of my parents standing together on the bookshelf downstairs. This would have been taken ten or fifteen years ago, and for the longest time I thought of it as a recent picture. But then suddenly—I don’t know what happened—it stopped being that. At some moment when I was not paying attention, the two of them took a full step forward and took up their same pose. Everything looked the same, except now photo felt archival, loaded with change. And when I pass by it now and have it in me to stop, I always remark how young they look. A few years back they were my familiar parents, safely older, but now it’s like I can reach right over. They are closing in on me.

One of the photos on the dresser outside of our room, the one closest to the door, and therefore right in my line of sight day after day, is of my father-in-law Earl Focht as a young man. I knew Earl for several years—he died some years ago, in his 70s. Looking out is a young man, twenty or so, wearing suit and tie with a pocket handkerchief. His hair is nicely combed, as hair always was, and he is staring steadily out of the frame. Handsome. Earl was often called, with joking familiarity, “Earl-the-Pearl” by members of Lynn’s family. The tag catches something of the pretty-boy quality in the photo, and also the sense that he was a favorite, eager to please, much liked by the many women in the extended family and beyond. His mother-in-law, “Mag,” adored him, to the point of pestering Earl and Delores, her daughter, to go along on their outings. And it was much contested by his six daughters which of them was his favorite. Those were not the only women—and one other in particular nearly broke up his marriage—but the young man in the frame knows none of that, which is of course part of the reason these innocent images can overwhelm us.

Lately, though, I’m catching another kind of haunt. Every time I glance at Earl’s face I can’t now not see the face of Matt Focht, the grown son of Lynn’s brother Gary. I’ve maybe seen Matt five times in my life, and only twice, really, since he has grown up. But he is there, sure as if he had cut off and combed his long hair, shaved, and suited up. Resemblance, sure—why make a thing of it? But it nags at me. For I knew this photo of Earl for some time before Matt leapt into it, and now that he is there I can no longer not see him. I can’t focus in on Earl on his own any more. And something very similar has happened with a framed portrait of my grandparents, Mike and Emilia, that we have downstairs. A classic portrait: they seem to me to be looking out not just from the past, but from a whole other era, like people unpacked from a battered old steamer trunk before the world found color. They stand, so young, but in that way the young once had of seeming old. Formal, unsmiling, probably the same age as young Earl, but historical. That used to be the main thing that struck me when I would study their faces. But now, as with the other photo, all I see is resemblance. My grandmother’s face has been taken over by that of my niece Olivia—she is absolutely there, and not just by virtue of facial similarity. Her presence itself feels like a feature of the resemblance. Not that there is any known similarity between her personality and what we remember of Um. It’s all so unsettling. As are the flashes—at this point they are nothing more than that—that I get when I look at that picture of my parents standing together. There was a time when I could look at my father’s face and see signs of his father—momentarily intense traces, as if someone had turned up the volume on resemblance—and that does still happen. But more commonly, and I’d say far too often, I am seeing myself. Little glimpses in the photo, and more sustained visitations in the mirror, not during the day, at which point I am habituated to myself, but in that first morning face off, when I step into the downstairs bathroom with its big, well-lit mirror and flip the wall switch. He meets me and takes me in for a second or two before withdrawing. That face, and also the person behind the face. So familiar and strange at the same time. He vanishes, but I know he’ll come again, and stay longer as time goes on. The photo on the living room shelf is safe by comparison, though it’s true I’ve learned to avoid ambush by moving my gaze selectively when I pass through that room.

Lighter. Found things and the stir they make in memory—that’s one ecology. But there’s another, no less important, describing the shadow world, all that we simply lose, or lose and then, on finding, find without spark. As if to say we are as much about our deletions as our accumulations. Yesterday I came home from travels to find a belated Christmas present in my mail, a bulky soft bundle from my brother and his wife. It was a thick fleecy sweatshirt they had special-ordered, embossed with my (and his) old high school insignia. But wait—something else! There was also a small, tightly-wrapped packet tucked in, and with it a note from Erik. “Something I found in my last sweep through the old place.” He was referring to the visit he and Alison had made to see my parents right before they sold the house and moved East. I palmed and hefted the packet, mystified—and then I slowly worked the tape loose. The paper-c0vered weight in the hand disclosed a dull silver sheen. A cigarette lighter. _Ah…_I felt the quick flash of wires making first contact. The lighter! But then right away was the pause. Wait, where did he get that? Hadn’t I destroyed the thing—the relic, my father’s old prize from the war? There was an afternoon maybe fifty years back, me alone doing irresistible demolition, working loose the parts, the little screws and cylinders and laying the whole thing out for study on his drafting table. And there was the scene later, when my father came home from the office. There was—But no, this couldn’t be right. How could Erik know about that? Had I written about it? Well, yes, I had—but had I written about barely, in passing. I doubt he would have read it, or, having read it, would possibly have remembered. Still, a faint waft of conjectural self-flattery: my brother reads me! But then suspicion comes chasing: if he had read me, had remembered it, then this was a joke, a little brotherly dig. A wink. Except he is not one for winking. Standing there by the counter, I can’t help but consider the speed of supposition: this all unfolded in a second or two. I’d just a moment ago lifted the thing from its wrapping and was holding it up between thumb and forefinger, inspecting, and for some reason I looked at the bottom first. There I saw a hole, a place for a missing screw. Maybe it had been reassembled, redeemed. And though I knew that if I flicked the lighter bar nothing would happen, I did—once, twice, again, each time imagining the clean leaf of a blaze. Then I gave it another turn in my fingers, another tilt of the wrist, and when I did the whole investigation fizzled. There, plain as could be on the flat side: S P B. My engraved initials. The lighter had been mine. Mine! Clearly once a gift given, received, and put to use. For of course I would have put it to use. But now, in the wake of all that first surmising, I get nothing. Just a blank the size of the lighter, and those three initials like the breadcrumbs that the woodlad birds had gobbled down. No way back for me. I stared at the thing, waiting for some first pulse of recollection, some Of course! But there was nothing right then and no feeling that anything might be en route, and I do trust myself to read these sensations when I have them—the tiny vacuum flutters that are telling me almost and maybe and allow me to hope that later, right before sleep, or while I’m stirring rice, the link will be achieved. Nothing. Though in the nothing I can’t help hurriedly sorting names, thinking of people who might have given me this gift. Andra, Vicky, Sally…Why am I thinking of women? Am I so sure that no male of my acquaintance would think to get the thing, any thing, engraved? Whatever the reason, each person—there are others—asks me to think of a scene, an occasion. Happy birthday! Congratulations! You did it! But no—there’s nothing forthcoming. Which means that just like that I’m hedged on all sides with my doubts and fears. Not just what kind of friend am I? But also, worse, if this, then what else? How much of the rest of my living has moved out of reach? Suddenly I can’t help imagining an alternate scenario, a memory film of all that has fallen away, suffered erasure, or simply bit by bit waned. It would be most of my life, I realize. Most of what has been rustling over the sprockets of the projector and flowering there on the screen. Myself in all of my banished incarnations: shaking hands with my parents’ friends, or my friends’ parents, shifting my weight from foot to foot in the cafeteria line behind my fourth grade classmates; stomping in my rubber boots past the bus-driver; taking notes year after year in big and small lecture halls as my professors make their points; eating sheet-cake at farewell parties for co-workers, laughing on my end of the telephone at something someone said…Someone—who was it? What did they say? Why did I laugh? I never had pants like that, glasses that spooned so hugely over my eyes; I never threw my arm around that fat boy and snickered into his ear. What room is that, what house, what little dog am I wrestling with on that carpet? Whose house, whose dog? World without end, amen. I have never said the word ‘corruscate’ out loud in my life, I will swear on a Bible. I never put those rabbit ears over that girl in that crowd, and who is she, and who are all the others? I never skiied with wooden poles. Did I? It goes on, this merest moment’s shudder of imagining. And then I’m there, here, still holding the thing, and Liam is looking on with interest. “What is it, Dad?” I smile and hand it over for him to look at. “A lighter,” I tell him. “With my initials engraved on it.” He looks impressed. “Wow—who gave it to you?” I look away, narrowing my eyes the way I do when I’m thinking hard. “I’m really not sure.” I say.

Sven Birkerts is coeditor of AGNI. He is the author of ten books: An Artificial Wilderness: Essays on 20th Century Literature (William Morrow), The Electric Life: Essays on Modern Poetry (William Morrow), American Energies: Essays on Fiction (William Morrow), The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age (Faber & Faber), Readings (Graywolf), My Sky Blue Trades: Growing Up Counter in a Contrary Time (Viking, 2002), Reading Life (Graywolf, 2007), Then, Again: The Art of Time in the Memoir (Graywolf, 2008), The Other Walk (Graywolf, 2011), and Changing the Subject: Art and Attention in the Internet Age (Graywolf, 2015). He has edited Tolstoy’s Dictaphone: Writers and the Muse (Graywolf) as well as Writing Well (with Donald Hall) and The Evolving Canon (Allyn & Bacon).

He has received grants from the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Foundation and the Guggenheim Foundation. He was winner of the Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle in 1985 and the Spielvogel-Diamonstein Award from PEN for the best book of essays in 1990. Birkerts has reviewed regularly for The New York Times Book Review, The New Republic, Esquire, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, Mirabella, Parnassus, The Yale Review, and other publications. He has taught writing at Harvard University, Emerson College, Amherst College, Mt. Holyoke College, and the graduate Bennington Writing Seminars, which he directed for ten years. He lives in Arlington, Massachusetts. (updated 10/2022)

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