THE QUESTION REMAINS -- WHO AM I? THIS IS NOT EVEN A METAPHYSICAL QUESTION, AL-though most people would try to make it one. It is, rather, and strictly speaking, a physical one.
One morning, several months ago, I spent a full half hour in the bathroom, under the fluorescent lights, examining my face. Oddly, it was the face of my mother I saw staring back at me that morning; my mother's face with the mouth of my younger brother and my father's eyes, depending on the angle I tilted my head. Stretching out my arm, the same phenomenon occurred; I saw my grandmother's hand, the same lines that ran deep into her hands were now beginning to erode mine. And my feet, with my toenails still bearing the traces of red nail polish from the summer, were the image of my mother's; I remember them clearly from when I was a child: the pale feet and the bright red toes. Looking back into the mirror, I noticed how my cheeks had subtly begun to fall at the corners of my mouth, and I could see the difference between what my face had been and what it had become if I stretched that skin back across my cheekbones. There was the face of my early youth -- then let the skin fall back naturally and there was my father's fallen smile.
I began to feel dizzy in that small room with the door closedbright light glaring down, and all those people crowding around me, my entire family crammed into the bathroom with me. I touched my hands to my face to my neck to my shoulders, wrung my hands together, rubbed my chest my stomach my thighs my calves my feet -- just to be sure I could still feel my own flesh, so strange it seemed; familiar but not my own.
A book from my childhood came to mind, one with three differensections whose pages could be turned independently of each other. One section had 10 different faces, one 10 different bodies and the bottom section 10 different sets of legs. I could rearrange the body parts so that an elephant had a giraffe's body and a lion's legs, or a monkey had a tiger's body and a person's legs. There was no way to keep the correct pictures together. I could always turn a portion of a page and transform a familiar animal into an unreal creature. And there were so many combinations. Which one was the right one, when did I stop flipping the pages? A crocodile's head my father's smile a cow's body my grandmother's hands a horse's legs my mother's feet a mouse's head my brother's nose. I stumbled out of the room and fell back onto the bed. I did not get dressed for another hour.
THERE ARE CERTAIN NATIVE American languages that have no verb tenses; past is the same as present is the same as future. Time becomes telescoped, a continuum. If today is the same as yesterday, it is the same too as tomorrow, as a day years from now. Our bodies are living proof of these languages. The things we have lost lie hidden in our faces, the people we have known, the years we have lost and the years yet to come. A face, a body, is a palimpsest -- a surface that has been written upon several times, the previous texts still partly visible. Pure and simple. We are composed of every day we have lived, we bear traces of everyone we have known, we are time made visible. Look closely, a young man still lives in your father's face. There is a very old woman in your infant daughter's. Layer upon layer, blood upon blood. Listen, too. You will hear an echo of yourself in your son's voice, and you will echo your mother's. Echoes and palimpsests. Some would say we are 85 percent water and the rest trace elements. I say we are mostly echoes and composite drawings of our blood's past, and future.
The question remains.
ONE AFTERNOON, WHILEwaiting in my daughters' schoolyard for the dismissal bell, I saw M. as an old woman. She was standing with her back to me, facing the school door where, in a few moments, scores of pushing children would pour forth. Even though I could not see her face, I knew it was my oldest daughter, one of the two girls I was waiting for, a girl who would soon emerge from that school door; and yet there she stood, a woman of 60 or 70.
She wore a long wool overcoat, gray in color, and on her head was a dark green silk scarf, folded in a large triangle, tied beneath her chin and covering most of her head. But I could see her long hair hanging down her back, spilling from beneath the scarf, overflowing. It was white; not pure white, but the creamy white that very blond hair turns instead of gray. An old white. Winter white. And I recognized her legs, visible from the knee down and covered in red woolen stockings; the shape of her calves unmistakable, the posture, the way she held her head -- all unmistakable. With her back to me, 50-some years older than I knew her to be when I had left her at school that morning, I saw her there -- facing the school, waiting.
I took my eyes off of her for but an instant. As the bell rang, the doors opened and all the children emerged, I instinctively looked for the two small figures I had come to retrieve as I did every afternoon, and in that second she vanished. M. appeared from the back corner of the school, as she always did, swinging her lunch box, blond hair sparkling in the sun, calling to her younger sister who was just coming out of the side door.
IT DOES NOT REQUIRE Agreat leap of faith to believe this. First of all, because it is true, but also because I know we leave tiny pieces of ourselves at certain special places. And what form these remnants of our past take, I could not say. When you return to such a place, you are in reality two people -- the one you truly are and the one you left behind. Perhaps at that spot years ago you saw yourself as an old person, only you did not recognize that ancient face staring at you as your own.
I have seen the frightened face of a 16-year-old girl in the second-floor window of a brownstone downtown; the same building where I spent three evenings a week after school "talking" with a doctor about the vague chaos of being 16. I have seen my mother at the age of 20, in a formal gown and
surrounded by other beautifully decorated young men and women, descending the porch staircase of an elegant Victorian home -- a house she once pointed out to me as the scene of her first formal party. I have seen my daughter as an old woman.
The question remains.
WHENEVER SOMEONErecords his voice on a tape, an almost universal phenomenon occurs -- that person does not recognize his own voice played back to him, although anyone else would. A person will even deny it is his voice, even become upset. It is not the same voice he hears resonating in his head. He is hearing it externally, as he does everyone else's, not internally, as he does his own.
I recorded my grandmother several summers ago, in an attempt to establish a family tree and simply to hear her recollections. The tape consists of her clear voice, interrupted by mine from time to time, asking questions, prompting. I know her voice as well as I do any person I have known. My own voice though sounds very much like my cousin's; familiar but not me, ultimately foreign.
The same phenomenon occurs with mirrors, with photographs. I have an internal picture of myself, based on everything I am, everything I know. And when I look into a mirror, it is sometimes difficult to recognize the face I see. It does not look like I feel I look. It is a mask. And yet it is what everyone else sees, never what I see from within.
There is another tape of my grandmother, made by my oldest brother even longer ago than mine, and I listened to it one summer afternoon at my sister's house. In it, she speaks of her mother, who died when my grandmother was 8 years old; she describes how she died, where she died, who she was, what remained of her in memories 80 years later. I could hear the pain of an 8-year-old child in her voice. The loss was as present as it ever had been. It was eternally present. And as I listened, I began to be aware of a background noise on the tape, behind my grandmother's voice. It was the muffled sound of a young child's crying. There had been no one in the room with my brother, with my grandmother when the tape was made and yet I heard a child.
This is not a ghost story, not unless you believe we are the living ghosts of our own pasts. I know what I heard and I know why -- we carry that child we once were with us; unseen for the most part and silent, but with us nonetheless. I have always known my grandmother as an adult; that is, all my life, she has been an older person, a grown-up person. Photographs of her as a young woman are merely pictures to me. I never personally knew that young woman she once was. But I heard her past speaking through her present, the 80-year-old pain of a loss too great to be forgotten in any lifetime. She was for me that day, an 88-year-old child.
WE DO NOT LEAVE BEHIND the days of the past. They are carried with us, invisibly -- like coral, a thin layer of living tissue clinging to a massive accumulation of the skeletons of countless predecessors. Every new day is the living layer, literally, the place we live, while all our yesterdays accumulate beneath us. A solid, ossified mass of yesterdays from whence we spring forth each new day. We cannot loose ourselves from the reef, even if we try. Those tiny skeletons hold us carry us feed us give birth to us. We build upon the debris of yesterday and we cannot escape our foundations.
The question remains -- who am I?