Unraveling Time

The line of people loops from the casket through the viewing room, past the front door, and through the second viewing room, where it angles and turns back on itself again in a narrow hallway. Outside, the wind skirls in the lavender twilight and slings the newly budded branches of a flowering tree back and forth against the window. The blossoms resemble star spangles in the growing heather light. Everyone who enters joins this long, somber, serpent line, waiting to pay their respects— to the living as much as the dead.

The room fills with faces from my past— older, grayer versions of faces I knew better twenty years ago. It feels like wandering through a museum of my memories, a living diorama. In the narrow back hallway, two of my great aunts have been swallowed by wingback chairs. They watch glassy-eyed on crooked-back necks as the line slithers back upon itself. They witness the living diorama.

“He was my brother,” says the older of the two, extending a trembling hand to my sister. I see in my aunt’s eyes that she doesn’t recognize us. “I used to have a twin— but she passed. I miss her, you know. We used to just giggle. All the time, we’d giggle.”

“We know all about that,” says my sister, and we laugh.

“Do you remember the old Sears store downtown?” asks my great aunt.

We nod even though we don’t remember. A Sears store outside a mall is an even older relic than the mall itself.

“We were walking to Sears this one day— my twin and I— and these boys were standing on the corner. They yelled out, ‘We must’ve died and gone to heaven. There’s angels walking down the street!'” She throws her head back and laughs with us, and I can see them there— two pretty women identical in their heels, giggling shyly on a street corner. “We just ignored them and kept walking.”

The line slips past these two, sweeping us with it. The respectful murmur of remembered things reverberates all around. My great uncle and his brothers had a distinctive way of talking— a deep, bass rumble accented by a family lilt. None of the brothers are left now, but I hear their echoes in the voices of their sons who stand in line. They’ll be the last ones to speak that way, I think since patterns of speech are inherited by presence and immersion.

I observe the slideshow that plays while we wait. Black and white photos of a little boy huddling with a box of kittens. Colored prints from twenty years ago. The faces I remember.

I’ve been through many mourning lines like this- though none as long- and even now, I’m overwhelmed by the feeling that if one only reversed life’s frames by hours or minutes, you could be there once more. Sitting on a rock wall in your parents’ driveway, your eight-year-old self. And the pantheon of great aunts and uncles are all still present and whole. They lounge in the folding chairs holding their Pepsies, smoking their cigarettes. They recite stories of another world filled with well houses, fieldwork, and thirteen kids in one tiny home. There’s no need for massive wingback chairs. Just sunshine, paisley print, feathered bangs, and oversized T-shirts tucked into acid-washed shorts.

In other mourning lines, I’ve recognized this is a futile feeling. There is no rewind button in real life, but I’ve wished there were lately. How simple would that be?

And yet…

To go backward would mean losing things, too. Time would take its toll no matter which way the progression.

“Oh, you’re the one with the new baby,” says someone to my youngest sister. And the delight of placement in our own pantheon turns her cheeks pink.

Going back seems like a cure when your heart hurts, but it’s a thief seen from a different angle. I’m sure someone once wished they could escape to a time before that little boy cuddled his box of kittens. But they would have lost the boy. And it seems harsh to wish unraveled the lives of others just to ease our own.

© 2023 Katie Baker

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