Thursday, November 30, 2017

The Purple Dusk (Finding the Lost Generation: A One Year Journey)

Whenever I find myself in crisis-filled life situations, I have this reoccurring dream that takes place in the front doorway of a couple in their 80's. It is becoming stormy outside as a heavy, purple dusk falls quickly. They want to give me a meal on their red and white checkered tablecloth and a place to sleep upstairs, but because of time and human limits they cannot. Tired from their own long journey and out of resources, they send me on my way into the night. They are sorrowful, even regretful, because they know my journey will be as excruciating as theirs was. I am left alone to face my own path, unlit, and full of jagged stones. After decades of this reoccurring dream, I finally recognized these people as my maternal great-grandparents and I recognized the door on the house in a photo.

Memories of that door, and house, and town found me again when I was in high school, in a different decade and 1,200 miles away. In one of my art classes there was a book on photo-realism that sparked something strangely familiar in my heart. The artist, Richard Estes, used Kewanee, Illinois -- the small town of my maternal
great-grandparents -- as the subject of some of his paintings. His photo-like images reflected the little downtown restaurants I had walked by and peeked into on warm summer evenings as the smells of grilled steak and fried potatoes wafted by, and the shops I had gazed into on cold winter afternoons, looking at furred coats, tinseled-trees and wind-up music boxes when I was very small. It's strange the way life leaves you little clues, little doorways, to find your way on the path, so that the unfound doors of your life become found.

Even as a very small child, I knew that my time at my great grandparents' Kewanee home was very limited. I knew to be fully present in that moment when I was playing with my toys upstairs, looking through the window, when a soft, late afternoon wind blew the sheets on the clothesline like ship sails, and rays of sun came streaming like dripping honey onto a peaceful farmland-earth, the smell of sweet green grass in their summer backyard, where a million leaves cast a million shadows on the warm, solemn ground. I looked out the window and told myself, "never forget this moment."

Of memories of my paternal Lost Generation grandfather - the clearest one is of him holding me in his mid-century kitchen when I was very small. The last time I remember his wife - my great grandmother - was around Christmas when I was in college, and she asked everyone in the family to stand in a circle and sing Amazing Grace. I got choked up as we did because I could sense that it was the end of something. And it was.

All of my memories of all of my great grandparents' homes from the Midwest to the Southwest take place in the middle of a humid, scorching summer or during a torrential snowstorm. And in my Illinois memories, I always fell asleep to the sound of trains. Sometimes in this life we can sense when the end of the line is coming, sometimes, we cannot. Sometimes we idealize people because we only knew them for a brief time, and then we hear stories that give us a completely different, even saddening perspective of who that person was. It can be hard to know a person, maybe that's why it is easier to know a generation instead. We have more in common with our great grandparents than we do with other generations in our families. As the cycles of history go, we have lived through similar struggles, and we have similar collective personalities. My strongest memory of my maternal great-grandparents' home will always be of their sun-drenched back yard by day, and at dusk, the light from the fireflies, rising and falling like time and the ages.

Telephone Booths (1968) Oil on canvas. Painting by Richard Estes, pioneer of
photo-realism, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid (Fair Use)

As the ages go, I lived out my childhood in a previous century, and within that century is when I knew the Lost Generation. And in the paintings that looked like photographs, in the photographs that were like paintings, I will keep looking for them. In the reflections of the metal edging of phone booths and chrome on bumpers of cars, in lock and key boxes of antique stores, I will keep looking for the messages of their generation, because my generation is a lost one, too, and any sign they left behind may get us just a little further down the road, where the light of day slips away from us and the heavy, purple dusk falls too quickly.

I forget the faces of Lost Generation people I have loved until I dream, or until I open an old, analog album that smells of dust and time, and the way we humans cling to hope even in the worst of our sorrows, even when the world would have us believe we are forever lost.

"A stone, a leaf, an unfound door; a stone, a leaf, a door. And of all the forgotten faces."
-Thomas Wolfe

(c) 2017 Writing by Chloe Koffas