Dawn musings: the design of fathers and music boxes.
A moment ago the rays of rising sun were spotlighting a photo on my wall, making a vignette of my mother standing behind the chair of my father who is holding Kazi in his lap. It reminds me of a poem about my father. Or is it about my mother?
The Last Photograph of My Father
My daughter is in his lap
like a bouquet of flowers.
Like the bouquet that would
come to the door from a friend
three days later.
But that is not the miracle.
The miracle is my mother
who appeared uninvited,
who walked across the room
and stood by his chair, though no one
would have asked her to do this.
Not because she did not belong,
but my mother refuses to be in pictures,
Turns her head, covers her face, scowls.
Even on a wedding photograph she is waving
an angry arm at the photographer.
In one teenage photo she tries to strangle
her kid brother with the camera.
So no one asks my mother to be in pictures.
This photo was to be of my daughter and father,
but she got up and crossed the room unbidden,
positioned herself in the center behind him
and though unpracticed, she smiled,
as if she knew she belonged there,
as if she heard his heart
Either way, it is gone now. The sun. Filling someone else’s 6 a.m. window, the gloria spotlighting something else with meaning.
Because I was up at 5 with the dog, and because I went to bed after midnight with the dog, I am falling asleep while writing this. That heavy-head-eyelid-drop that often hits me when writing. But before I got so sleepy, and before the sun left to go play at someone else’s house, another object on my desk was illuminated. My mother’s black handled magnifying glass. Its circumference measures more than the breadth of my palm. The convex center is a mess of scratches, and it is these I find myself thinking about. Wondering if today somone could polish them away. Not today but “these days.”
In all the time I grew up with the magnifying glass it was scratched. I do remember my mother trying to use it to read small print. The fact that it was broken and not really usable didn’t lead to it being gotten rid of. Broken was the condition of many if not most things, a state of affairs we accepted as our due.
Three things belonged to the same group: the silver handstapler, the magnifying glass, the blue and green glass ashtray. They were mom. If I keep the magnifying glass on my desk, it is because we share a past. That black handled implement knew my mother in a way I never did, and because it belonged to her it has not occured to me to throw it out. Or is it because I have inherited her habit of not throwing things out that I keep it on my desk, as useless as ever.
If mom was solid practical objects like the stapler, magnifying glass and ashtray, Dad was a myriad of contradictions: a prayer rug, onyx ring, golden dental bridge, Allah on his arm in a blue tattoo. The one thing of my fathers that I longed to find in his house after he died was his black cigarette-cum-music-box. It stood about ten inches high, brass knob on top, five lacquered doors with gold inlay (or so I fancied). A key on the bottom wound it up. As it rotated to a sprightly melody the five doors swung open to serve cigarettes from little pockets behind each one. Winding up and watching an instrument like that, indeed collecting such items of quirky beauty and demonstrating them for people like me, filled my dad with childlike glee.
The music-cigarette-box was not in his house at the end.
I hope it is a source of joy for whoever has it. Or, if it has been destroyed and no longer exists, that my brief and inept description of it here contributes to it being remembered by those who have seen it, or one like it (for it surely wasn’t unique), back in the days (40s? 30s?) when the elegance of music, design, and cigarettes was one. I wasn’t there, but my dad was. He didn’t smoke, but my mom did. They would have been her cigarettes in the little doors of the music box.
My dad smoked a pipe, and I did find one of those in his house after he died. Still have it, nearly twenty years on, on my little shelf of treasures. Another item I found was a sign hanging in the hallway, artistically lettered in his own hand: Thou Shalt Not Smoke Until Cremated. That’s the kind of thing he found hilarious, both as a provocation to his muslim upbringing and a darned good play on words.
The sign was as close to a last will and testament we could find in the rubble and chaos that was his house. My father’s brother rejected the suggestion (made by my mother via me) that my father be cremated. To him anything short of a muslim burial would leave his brother’s spirit wandering the earth in endless unrest. So we had the muslim burial: men only service, cardboard box coffin, white cotton shroud, all the teeth pulled, consecrated muslim burial ground in another state. That was the first, but not the last, time that I heard my father speak to me after he died, his voice as clear and real and full of childlike enthusiasm as when he first placed the black lacquered box on the table and called me over saying, Honey, come and look!
Oh honey, it does not matter, he said, his voice almost cheerful as I stood over his body that lay on the floor before a sea of genuflecting strangers, all madly praying for his soul. There was a twinkle in his voice. The scene held the kind of complex irony he took pleasure in generating. Cremated or buried in a box, no matter.
For all the wisdom he had attempted to impart to me as a child, these were the first words, father-to-daughter, the only words I ever really heard. Or needed to hear. It took a lifetime, but in that moment I finally knew that he was my father. And I smiled at the irony along with him. All this hullabalu, and here he wasn’t even dead at all.
The next thing he showed me, in a dream a few nights later, was his house, unrecognizable as the one with the squalor and chaos and no-smoking-till-cremated sign. I moved through its many rising stories, each gleaming, golden, full of oak and sunlight, swept and polished and clean, empty of unnecessaries and rubbish, but containing a few select items of beauty. He showed me the polished walnut server, beautiful, sorted and in place. There was nothing for me to take care of, no burden, no mess.
If the black lacquered cigarette-music-box was in that house, I didn’t see it. Chances are it was gone, its purpose served, and like my father it had moved on.