Descending a Staircase - Lois Greene Stone

            Downsize. Change. Simple words sometimes remind us that our passage through time has changed from ‘endless’ to closer to ending. Our adult lives were shaped by observation and quiet commentary from others. Reflection, yet always noticing a ‘new’ in familiar, is part of the present.
            As sun streams into my personal office, in what once had been my daughter’s growing-up bedroom, I’ve noticed that my oak desk drawers no longer match the plastic laminate top. The real wood slowly faded its color in streaks of sun-bleached patterns; the effect has a modern art appearance.
            Cardboard boxes that once contained shoes currently store unsorted photographs my widowed mother had once given me to assemble and hand down to the next generation. Stacked on my desk, the boxes look like steps leading to nowhere. My memory flashes to a futuristic painting I had to study for an Art History class: Nude Descending a Staircase. As if taking a test, I scribbled Marcel Duchamp’s name on a scrap-paper pad, then added ‘lines, angles, experience going down a flight of stairs.’ I marvel a moment at the human brain and its ability to store, then process, information it received decades ago.
            Outside the double-hung window with its plastic partitions to form window panes, only mounds of snow seem visible. My calendar changes the year…. a good time, without birds chirping or need-to-go-outdoors distraction, to force myself to pull down the uppermost cardboard box, descend its stairs-shape, and clump that collection into distant past, a past more current. A brand name from shoes once nestled inside amid thin tissue paper, assaults my eyes. I pull several nasal tissues from a holder propped near a desk lamp, and cover the box’s shoe logo. Tissues drift down and clump helplessly.
            The house is quiet; I am alone. I glance again outside the window glass as a few flakes of snow tap and briefly cling to a pane, then I look at the first black and white photograph. My short-stature maternal grandfather is being sworn in as an American citizen. Pin stripes on his suit look narrow next to thick stripes on our country’s flag, spread open and tacked to a wall as if it were a huge picture. The flag’s stars are fewer than now. 1917. Mama had been secreted out of Russia by horse-drawn cart as a sixteen-year-old girl, settled in New York City, sent for her fiancé who came in steerage, and they were married in New York. Papa is a photographer. My mother had affixed this data on the 5×7 photo’s back. The new citizens’ swearing-in event, even to my mother, had less importance than her sentences about her parents’ courage plus their wish to be part of America’s people. The photograph concealed their traveling in steerage, having to learn to speak English, living in a walk-up tiny apartment with one bathroom for all tenants on the floor. My mother’s handwritten note had me think about her parents as refugees, also once young with ‘endless’ life ahead.
            I picked up the second photo lying in my cardboard box. My grandpa was on a stage with Eleanor Roosevelt; she was at a podium delivering a speech. An on-stage sign read “Learn the 3 R’s of To-day Registration-Reconversion-Reconstruction Women Make History on October Registration Days” My grandpa had much less hair than in 1917, so I quickly turned the photo over to see if, perhaps, someone had scrawled the date but no one had.
            Negatives. In our present Smartphone or digital camera time, no negatives slip into envelopes we have to date so if/when we want a copy of an old picture, we slide the negative from its sleeve and give to a developer. Negatives were the actual size of the photo back in the early 20th century. A brown envelope had preserved a collection of 5×7 black and white ones but no developer today would even have the equipment to make copies from any. My boxes of 35mm slides, capturing my children’s growing years, are obsolete and no projectors are being manufactured anymore. I put the negatives in the bottom of the shoe box.
            When I was teaching English Composition at a local college, I found myself so absorbed in each student’s words that I spent way too much time reading/grading individual essays. I was doing the same with these old pictures. Realizing that just one box would take hours, I did the ‘easier’ thing, what I couldn’t do with students’ essays: I put the cover back on the box for a ‘someday,’ pretending that the future years have longer lengths.
            Going downstairs, I wondered if that cubist painter, studied in my Art History class, would have captured more than the lines and angles of my legs and arms in a ‘z’ shape just like my staggered cardboard boxes of photos appear? What might he have drawn had he seen the boxes on my desk? I’m superimposing people and cardboard storage in my head; perhaps that would be painted.
            Downsize. Quite impossible when choices have to be made. Easy to toss out the trash or today’s newspaper, but tangible pieces of our lives require consideration even if there’s no monetary value. How much easier it’d be to put an old leather baby shoe into the garbage…. or would it? Why was it saved for decades in the first place?
            I can alter my daughter’s growing-up space into my personal office room because furniture and square footage don’t have handwritten notes affixed. However, I was shaped by observation and quiet commentary by so many faces in black and white photos, I can’t consign them to oblivion

First published ©2009 The Jewish Press

Lois Greene Stone, writer and poet, has been syndicated worldwide. Poetry and personal essays have been included in hard and softcover anthologies. Collections of her personal items/ photos/ memorabilia are in major museums including twelve different divisions of The Smithsonian.