Book of Hours

By Gina P. Vozenilek

I.

The ground comfortable as any bed. A whistle of grass between your teeth. The green blanket tickling and sticking to your sunburned arms, your thighs, the fleshy backs of your hands where they cross beneath your head.

A rabbit! An elephant . . . now a truck. There: a whale!

The wind swells high overhead in the trees. You recline with all the world above you, all before you, fluid and beautiful and endless. You are six.

You don’t think of your grass-bed as belonging to an immense sphere. You don’t feel yourself held to the globe, spinning through space, hurtling through time. The arc of summer that stretches between distant school days behind and ahead is anchored, like the horizon, by disappearing endpoints you cannot see and do not consider.

To a ten-year-old child, a calendar year represents ten percent of life. That same year to a 20-year-old is only five percent of life.

Your summer is about endless leisure, eternity unfolding in the studied, sticky progress of a bright green inchworm across a hot sidewalk. This is your science: concrete and empirical and accidental. You don’t notice lengthening shadows or variations in the sun’s track, its zenith daily sliding off further to the south. You are occupied in the fort, or gathering dandelions, or lying flat on your back in the grass discerning animal forms in the passing clouds. The ice cream truck’s cheerful jingle is your only clue that lunch has passed and soon it will be time to pause for supper. You play ghost in the graveyard and chase fireflies long into the dusk. Time is elastic; the day stretches to accommodate your explorations and curiosities. Time is your entitlement. Tomorrow will be just like today. It will always be summer.

Philosophers and psychologists who study such things have hypothesized that human beings experience time in comparison to age. To a ten-year-old child, a calendar year represents ten percent of life. By comparison, that same year to a 20-year-old is only five percent of life. The 20-year-old’s year, therefore, goes by twice as fast as the ten-year-old’s. Perceptually, life is speeding up. Time seems to accelerate, and the summer shortens itself proportionately, until one day, perhaps in your early teen years, a prematurely fallen leaf in August triggers a sense of alarm. You don’t have to do the math to feel it.

Now the cloud animals dissolve into the atmosphere. The pool closes. School supplies invade the stores. The dog days shoot past you like greyhounds. The world starts spinning.

II.

My grandmother, the matriarch, is 92. She lives in a studio apartment my parents built for her in the attic of their bungalow. With windows in each of four dormers facing the cardinal points, the space is bright and airy. The ceiling is clad in cedar, beams exposed. Just before Grandma moved in with her brass bed and her electric keyboard and her sewing machine, my father covered the wood floor with mauve rosin paper, taped the windows, and rented a paint sprayer. When he was finished with his five-gallon bucket of white, the ethereal effect was so evocative of heaven that I was half worried grandma would think she’d actually died and gone there.

Metaphorically, she had. “Imagine,” she said emphatically several times after she had settled in. “Being my age and getting a brand new apartment like this!” Upstairs she has her freedom and the yellow floral curtains she sewed for herself. But she is also close to help if she should need it; her heart has given us all a few scares.

Grandma cannot be found sitting and stewing about such details as her age. She’s too busy. My children know that visiting her in her loft means cinnamon rolls, or fettucine noodles drying in squiggles on the butcher-block island, or bread in the oven. “I want the kids to remember this about me,” she’ll say calmly while glazing a fresh batch of biscotti. She plays piano for them by heart and ear. She designs their Halloween costumes.

A light glows on the dashboard of your car.  At first, you are careless, in no hurry to refill the tank.

Grandma does not allow herself to take naps in the long afternoons. Instead, if she grows tired, she brews a cup of coffee and steps away from her kitchenette or her Singer. Then she sits to play a few hands of solitaire or tunes in an old black-and-white movie. She eschews the habit of a daily nap, judging it to be a mistake for a person of her age. Those hours are ones she knows she won’t get back, and the older she gets, the dearer they seem. Plus, she always tells me that she doesn’t like the groggy feeling that comes when she must struggle herself awake again, when she must shake off the warm grip of sleep. “You’ll sleep when you’re dead,” her mother used to tell her.

Grandma is handing down her secrets. My youngest, Annie, is her special apprentice while the big kids are in school. She is teaching her about dough and bread making: how yeast works to give life to the flour and water, how you knead the dough gently but firmly, rocking and turning it under the heel of your hand, and how you must be patient and let the dough rest before it can rise. To see their four hands on the kitchen island together, busy learning and teaching, is to see a kind of before and after: the child’s perfect hands and the great-grandmother’s aged ones, sculpted by time to bear a gnarled and capable beauty.

The old woman knows when the dough will be ready — in no time at all; but the little girl, who has only faint knowledge of what one hour means, can hardly believe that time will ever truly elapse to allow her to get busy putting her hands into the dough’s fragrant warmth and play it into shapes. Grandma knows she cannot adequately explain the waiting required, cannot weigh it or demonstrate it, except with the hindsight of the bowl of puffed dough, miraculously doubled in size. “See?” she can say to little Annie only then. “I told you it would come up.”

III.

A light glows on the dashboard of your car. The gas tank is almost empty. You begin to consider a way to amend your itinerary to include a stop at a gas station. At first, you are careless, in no hurry to refill the tank. You know your car and approximately how long you can safely cruise around ignoring the bothersome light. Eventually, though, the need to get to a pump takes precedence over all wandering.

Here was their little green patch, the paradise of their own devising. They had cultivated a lifestyle that was, quite simply, too attractive to quit.

But if you are driving that car in, say, the Badlands of South Dakota, and you know there is nowhere you can possibly stop for gas (because you have seen the “last chance for gas” signs, and they were a long way back), what option do you have but to keep pushing and leaning forward, tilting toward that dashboard? The car will at last simply cough and falter and coast to a gentle stop. And then you will have gone as far as you could go, squeezed every fraction of distance out of that tank, ventured as deeply into the arid landscape as possible. Now silence and solitude replace the hum of the engine. You are subsumed into the wide open night, shot through with the piercing light of a billion stars.

It is like this with my father’s parents, who still stubbornly live alone in Florida but probably shouldn’t. When my brother and I were still in grammar school and my father’s job sent us packing for the Sunshine State, my nonni followed us, their only kin in America. Besides, the winters in Chicago were starting to bother them, and they were due for a sunny retirement.

In time, fate returned us all to Chicago: first my parents, then John and me and our eventual babies, and finally even my brother. All of us but the nonni. By then they had become enmeshed in a network of paesans who would set out together on day cruises and play cards and go dancing at senior clubs. They had a comfortable house with a garden in Paradise Palms. The homeowners association twice honored them with an oval plaque, staked proudly in their thick front lawn, for Most Outstanding Home. Here was their little green patch, the paradise of their own devising. They had cultivated a lifestyle that was, quite simply, too attractive to quit. So they stayed in Florida without us, free to play bocce and picnic and tend their grapefruit trees.

But time is catching up with them. Ten years ago Nonna could best me on a Stairmaster at the local health club. Eight years ago she was still the authority on the family calendar; she not only knew all the birthdays, but also whether you were Tuesday’s or Wednesday’s child. But three years ago she started to say things that didn’t quite make sense, little anecdotes in which characters would be mixed up incongruently. She might overlay one generation on top of another, getting the story essentially right but substituting my daughter for me, for example. She started slowing down physically, too: a tentative gait replaced her old confident one, and she gave up her gym membership and her driver’s license. Then two years ago, she forgot her only son’s birthday. And last year, she collapsed while on a day cruise. The captain pulled the big boat into dock early so she could be transported to the local emergency room. She stayed in the hospital for several days. When I called her and the nurse helped her to answer the ringing bedside phone, she did not understand that she was in the hospital; she thought she was visiting a neighbor. The doctors are not really sure how to diagnose her condition, but we can all see that, whatever you call it, it is the end of a phase of life. The light is glowing on the dashboard.

My father went to see them. He wanted them to come to Chicago now, or at least to hire some help. They refused.

Nonna still knows who we are, misses us. “When are the kids coming for a visit?” she asked him.

“In January. Won’t that be nice?” my father answered. This pleased her.

Then in ten minutes she wanted to know: “When are the kids coming for a visit?”

IV.

I gave my son a bath tonight. He is six years old, covered in a rash. I began to tune the criss-cross H and C knobs to find the right temperature, and the tiled room filled with the noise of rushing water. As I knelt on the mat, turning my attention to stopping the drain with the round rubber plug, I told him to strip down. From the corner of my eye I saw him hesitate. I turned to look at him and found a funny smile on his face. The rash had reddened his complexion, but he was blushing a shade deeper than virus.

“Mah-ah-m,” he protested sheepishly, dragging out the syllables scoldingly and smiling at me. “Look away!” His hands formed an X below his waist.

I don’t remember him ever asking me to avert my eyes from his body before. He and his twin brother still run to use the bathroom amidst a houseful of company and neglect to close the door. They are also the same boys who last Mother’s Day mooned a room full of distant cousins and in-laws, egged on by an older boy who could see that they had not yet developed an appropriate sense of shame. But now, for the first time I could remember, Peter was embarrassed about his nakedness. He was conscious of the privacies he ought to defend. Like the quantum leap in self-awareness that drove Adam and Eve to don fig leaves, that moment in the bathroom proved that time has lurched forward. A piece of childhood innocence has broken loose and fallen away. It has happened, and it cannot unhappen.

Later I watched him sleeping in his blue plaid sheets, a stuffed polar bear that used to be mine tucked under his chin. My hands rearranged the blankets neatly around his little shoulders and reached out to smooth his hair, to feel the smallness of his head, to bless him, yet a boy. I wonder how long I have left to do these things. I study the shape of their ears and the curve of their necks, imprinting this fading image on my mind. To see my young children sleeping, to see them at rest, is to experience a brief illusion that it is time itself that is stilled, that they will forever be this way, if I only stay in their darkened rooms and watch their gentle breathing.

V.

There was guilt in it, somehow. I was doing them a service, aiding them in their need, but it felt a little funny, a little wrong. I witnessed, in the legal sense, my Nonno and Nonna’s end-of-life documents: Living Will, Last Will and Testament, Durable Power of Attorney, and Healthcare Surrogate.

We sat at their kitchen table, the scene of a million happier moments. This was the same table on which had been laid mountains of plump gnocchi, acres of radicchio snipped fresh from the garden, oceans of homemade vino rosso. An empire of food. This was the table where we learned to play rummy and briscola with the stiff Italian cards, the table on which we pounded our hands with laughter, folded our hands to ask a blessing and give thanks. And these two old people sitting small in their chairs now were the same people who had once presided over our family at this table.

I moved aside the old placemats and set out before them sheet after sheet of small print with big import. A foreign language. Despite the fact that only Nonno was able to read some of the English legalese and would have been hard pressed to explain any of it, neither of them hesitated to lift the pen and put it to paper at my direction. I pointed to many lines requiring their signature, and they did not flinch. They submitted. They abdicated. They might have been told to sign over their car, their house, their citizenship. They would have signed anything I slid before them on that table, smiling appreciatively at me.

Together they witnessed the world itself come into the twentieth century, looking up into the skies to see the first airplanes flying over the Istrian peninsula.

The only problem was that, after her first shaky signature, Nonna could no longer sign her own name. Her pen trembled on that first line, but the letters came out under the slow, deliberate effort of her hand, all in tentative capitals, properly in their long-assigned order: O. L. G. A.

In the second signature she reversed the L and the G. Oops! I said, laughing. That’s okay.

After that, she needed help remembering the spelling of both names. Now an A. An A, Nonna. Sí! Brava.

And then the letters themselves became garbled. She might start the A but forget the cross-hatch connecting the slanted lines. Cosí. Like this.

And at times her pen hovered motionless above the printed progression of the letters already deposited on the page. It was then as if she had abruptly forgotten what it was she was doing.

I went out to the porch then and dialed my uncle, the lawyer who had drawn up the papers at my father’s behest, to ask him which lines needed Nonna’s full endorsement and which could be simply initialed. In the end, even the two letters of her monogram were a chore for her to produce. As we sat there together at that table, the gradual decline of her ability to make her mark went from bad to worse.

When at long last we were done, I gathered up the papers quickly and slid them away into their manila folder, pinching the brass clasp. Grazie, I said, and kissed her. Then I got up to fix us some lunch.

VI.

My husband fell for a younger lover. So did I.

He and I were high school sweethearts, but we’d known each other long before that first date our senior year. The two homeroom mothers in seventh grade were our mothers. We have looked at each other’s faces since they were the faces of children.

And so our problem is this: as we move through the years together, we are stuck in another trick of time. We have undoubtedly aged. Friends we haven’t seen in a decade would notice the faint etching of laugh lines around my eyes, the strands of silver in my brown hair, the extra pounds John carries now. But being together constantly for over half our life handicaps our ability to perceive these subtle and gradual changes. Some part of our prejudiced minds hangs on to our earliest impressions of one another. The youth that we knew still looks back at us through each other’s eyes and fools us into thinking we are still just two teenagers in love. It is, admittedly, a lovely problem to have. But it is this romantic misconception that sometimes slows our reaction time or dulls our purpose. We imagine that we have a nearly limitless string of tomorrows in which to adopt healthier habits or address retirement planning or make plans to travel. It seems like just yesterday that I was cruising down A1A in the passenger seat of John’s silver Corolla, coyly draping my sunburned body across the stick shift, breathing into his strong shoulder: “Do you think you will ever ask me to marry you?”

I think of my nonni, whose lives were even more closely entwined. Their lifelong love affair started with Nonno as his wife’s babysitter. In the mountaintop village where they were born, he used to push her around in a wheelbarrow to hear her laugh. Later when he worked in the olive groves with his brothers, she would come to the men with a jug of drinking water on her head, a basket of lunch on her arm. Together they witnessed the world itself come into the twentieth century, looking up into the skies to see the first airplanes flying over the Istrian peninsula. They knew the effects of war, clung together through hard times, all when they were very young. There is not a time of their lives that does not contain each other. They married when she was 17 years old, he 20. They have always looked after one another, and now that they are old it is no different. He has even taken to helping her put the curlers in her hair at night.

Similarly, John and I did not meet each other as fully formed adults. We met when we were dreaming of what life might be like. We met when time stretched out long in front of us, bordered only by that disappearing edge of a faraway future. We learned each other as we learned ourselves, coming into adulthood and our love for each other all at once. We were vibrant, brimming. All roads were still open to us, radiating out in every conceivable direction. When we started thinking about marriage, we traced out our life on a little paper napkin. It all fit.

VII.

History is tracked along a timeline, populated with events that can be charted ahead of or behind others. We journey from first through middle to last. Ever forward we trudge. We conceive of time as infinite and constant and progressing in one direction only. Our modern words and idioms reinforce or complement this concept of time as linear: People with visionary ideas are called “forward thinkers” who may be “ahead of their time.” By contrast, we use “backward” as a derogatory term that connotes a lack of sophistication or, more precisely, of being stuck in the rut of an inferior historical situation — a past that has not yet been properly left behind. A “setback” is a stumbling in reverse on the timeline of positive movement.

I may have made an error in deciding not to pay a videographer to record our wedding.

But the medieval sensibility held a slightly different conception of time. For a preindustrial people who clung close to the earth and its seasons for life, time was a loop. Like nature itself, time circled back around. This was echoed in the liturgical calendar. Holy days and scriptural readings were proscribed for each day of the year. They repeated — still do for Catholics — in a predictable cycle.

The quotidian was also cyclical; the faithful were called to prayer and meditation daily at certain times, guided by a book of hours. For those who had the means, these beautiful little books, often illuminated with great care and creativity, were treasured objects. Some boasted brilliantly detailed miniatures of biblical scenes or saints. Sometimes such a book was given by a groom as a wedding present to his bride. A book of hours would aid her daily devotions, help her join duty to hope and see the mundane enfolded into a heavenly eternity.

My nonno has a missal that reminds me of one of these medieval spiritual companions. It is a plain black book with red and black words printed in Italian on onionskin paper. Every day after his breakfast of caffé latté and a sweet roll, he retreats without announcement or fanfare to his little office. He sits at his desk, above which hangs a large oil painting of a pastoral scene: a flinty mountain peak and a golden grassy valley. It must remind him of the old country where he farmed with his seven brothers. Faded Christmas cards and pictures of my family are tucked randomly into its gilt frame. Smiling grandchildren and great-grandchildren, their colors going weak, surround him in their brass frames on the desktop. In this way we accompany him in his solitude. In this way, there and then merges with here and now. He takes the slim leather book in his old hands, turns to the page for the day, and makes his prayer.

VIII.

I may have made an error in deciding not to pay a videographer to record our wedding. I hate the way the cameraman gets into people’s faces and coerces articulations of happy wishes for the bride and groom. I was all too happy to draw a decisive line through that item on the long list of wedding expenses. We could hardly afford the work of the photographer.

But there was a bigger reason to nix the video. The idea of a wedding video was primarily vetoed on the theoretical ground that as the anniversaries piled up, I would be in danger of relying on the video record for my recollections instead of keeping alive internally those precious moments, experienced and emotionally recorded in ways far richer and more complex than any VHS format (now passé, to boot). I wanted to remember things as they happened, not replace genuine memories with an unconscious memorization of the movie of my wedding.

But this heady reasoning may have been a mistake. John and I are not yet 15 years out from the big day and the memories are fading at an alarming rate. A movie might have jogged more of them.

Time ravages memories and squashes the cleverest ideas about how to preserve them. It shaves off their sharp corners, blurring their edges and warping their proportions. Details begin to shift, morph, drop away in bits. Perhaps I should have made video evidence of other important times in my life, times that, from my ripe old age of not-quite-40 seem hardly to have really happened at all: there was an apartment in Iowa City where I lived alone and studied medieval literature, and a cubicle with my name on it shared with an MFA student named Iqbal (wasn’t there a third cubemate?). Before these came a formative semester in London. There was a pub down the street where the barkeep (what was his name?) knew me by my half-pint of Strongbow. I stole a poster off the Tube (what was our stop? Bayswater Road?) that proffered weary commuters — how English — poetry:

Love without hope, as when the young bird-catcher
Swept off his tall hat to the Squire’s own daughter,
So let the imprisoned larks escape and fly
Singing about her head, as she rode by.

— Robert Graves

And I took long walks to class through Kensington Park, where Diana and Charles, still married, lived in their austere brown palace. I really did belong there briefly, didn’t I? Parts of my past seem more like fiction than reality to me — not because they were spectacular or unbelievable, but because they happened so long ago, in a life so different from the one I have now. I let go of some things, I gave some things away, but they were mine once, really and truly and with a banality that similarly attends my current life, which will someday seem unreal to me as well. I was too young then to know how young I was.

IX.

Silver, faded bronze, charcoal at the nape. Between my tentative fingers, dull hanks of dirty hair. Dandruff speckling. My right hand working the comb, my voice nervously high and chatty, my mind’s eye taking in the scene, frightened by it. Looking down at her head, I avoid Nonna’s old face, those milky gray eyes looking out from some faraway place in which she sometimes gets lost.

I begin cutting. The blades hiss around her neck.

There was another incident. My father and I have rushed to Florida to see how his parents are faring. We must find documents, make phone calls, get the good gold jewelry into a safe deposit box. A Honduran woman from the church will interview for the job of caretaker — we will not let them refuse help this time.

We gasped when we first walked in, instinctively breathing through our mouths. This house, once scrubbed to a clinical clean by Nonna on her robust hands and knees, has now been relinquished to squalor: piles of filthy clothing, trails of sugar ants in the kitchen, stains on the furniture. My first job would be to find a bucket and mop to clean the tile floor that was slick with urine.

“Where do we even start?” I whispered.

My father took a breath. His eyes flared wide and sorrowful. He exhaled: “A hand grenade?”

I pushed myself forward, past my own pity, to greet her with a smile. “Nonna!” I shouted, as though she were deaf. “Come stai? How’s my Nonna?”

Pulito,” she answered proudly. An unlikely word of welcome. I’m clean.

I had no response for that. Nor was I up to the task of making it true. I could not confront the ponderous difficulty of going with her into the bathroom. Her dishevelment did not unnerve me; her lack of self-perception did. How does it come to this? Her body and mind were letting go of their natural hold on one another. She was, in the most profound ways, coming undone.

I steered her out to the porch so I could breathe, think. Not think.

Not think about how youth and health are held as virtues, while their correlatives — old age and decrepitude — are subconsciously aligned with vice. Not think about cleanliness being next to Godliness. Something she always believed, possibly still did.

When I was little, Nonna’s hair had always been cut neatly, styled close to her head. There’s a picture of her in the Chicago factory, assembling parts with her Polish lady-friends. She’s wearing a kerchief, her large teeth parted in a smile. Few photographs remain of her as a young woman in Italy, when her hair cascaded down her shoulders.

As I cut Nonna’s hair, Nonno sits nearby sorting papers with my father, who speaks loudly to him in Italian, looking over glasses that tilt on the edge of his nose. His tone is brusque: The car will not be coming back from the shop; it was totaled. Where is your license now? When did you last pay the insurance? My father’s hair is thinning, too, in the same pattern as his father’s. Nonno sits quietly, scratching his head and answering in his breathy voice, shoulders sagging and shrugging.

I bring Nonna to the kitchen sink, lean her back against its harvest gold rim. I let water pour down on her, onto the floor. We both get drenched, no avoiding it. I’m grateful for shampoo. The softness of lather, like mercy, massages tenderness through my fingertips. I can fix this one little thing for my nonna.

Once rinsed and sitting straight again, Nonna turns to me, seeming more herself. She is happy, tries a little joke: “How much do I owe you?”

I laugh with her. But I have no response for that, relieved as I am that the church woman will give her the bath.

X.

“Mommy, when is it my birthday?” asks Annie.

“First we’ll have Grandma’s birthday, then Dee-Dee’s birthday, and Uncle Mike’s wedding. Then it will be your birthday,” I answer. I am sitting with her in her twin bed. Her short hair is wet from the bath, tucked behind her ears. She smells good, like soap.

“First I had my one, then my two, then my three. And pretty soon I’m going to have my four birthday!” she cheers. She wants pink cake.

She was, in the most profound ways, coming undone.

I snug the blanket in around her, the super soft one that used to belong to my great-grandmother. Annie gets quiet, thoughtful. She is a deep, bright child. I study the perfect curve of her upturned nose.

“Mommy?”

“Hmmm?”

Annie’s eyebrows furrow. “How many birthdays am I going to get?”

My breath catches. I reach for her hand and enclose it in mine. I can feel each delicate bone. “Lots and lots, baby.”

Annie nods and lifts her face to mine for the goodnight kiss. Her forehead is smooth against my dry lips.

XI.

We are nearing the end of an experimental journey, one of a set of calibrations of time: how long to walk to the library from the new house, how many minutes to school, what is the shortest route from our house to theirs, driving and walking, with and without stroller? My parents are newly moved into our neighborhood, downsizing to a smaller house — the bungalow whose attic they will finish. Tonight we are headed over there for dinner. We have been walking for eight minutes, with stroller. The three oldest kids have been at Grandma’s since the afternoon school bell.

We are still at a distance and unnoticed when I see my oldest child sitting on the rail of the front porch, her back to the world as it goes by. She is submerged in a book, a million miles from me and my eyes. The sun, capitulating to dusk, backlights the length of her hair. It tumbles down her back the way mine used to do, a mane of curls.

My husband does not take note of this scene, even though I place my hand solemnly on his shoulder and say, “How old she looks sitting there. Do you see?” John is busy minding the three-year-old as she clambers out of the stroller to push it “like a big girl.” I stand frozen in that moment, wondering how she has come to this: a baby girl grown, so full of her own mysterious interior life, transporting herself away from us through that book.

More than that: I am transfixed by this sudden picture of myself. How have I come to this? Married woman, mother of four, with a daughter as old as that one sitting there on that ledge with her — with my — curly hair. I allow myself the vanity of seeing through her, as if she were a window, to the lost child that was me.

Inside the house, cooking, are two more generations of women, my mother and grandmother. I see myself slotted in the progression of the ages.

In some ways, I used to be like my daughter. I’d sit in my bedroom window seat, a crab apple tree and fragrant lilac bushes just outside the open casement, and read for hours at a time. Or I would wander in the forest preserve near my house, climbing trees or running, my hands flying at my side through the tall grass like some Laura Ingalls Wilder alá Melissa Gilbert in the opening sequence of the television version of Little House on the Prairie. I had read every volume in that series many times over. They were my favorite books. When it became obvious Gilbert was too old for the part of the pioneer girl, I started wearing my hair in tight braids and made a play for moving to Hollywood and taking over the role. I was a dreamer, a romantic, an idealist. This much I remember about being nine.

My daughter is like this. I found a note the other morning, after she’d gone off to school:

“Mom, birds woke me up. I went outside in the front yard to find them. I will stay within the hedge.”

She’d been off on a mini adventure, an exploration of her own devising, before I was even downstairs to make breakfast. She’d been gone and I hadn’t even known it.

XII.

The night sky as holy as any cathedral. And older. A whispered prayer on your lips. Your eyes searching for patterns, meaning.

The Big Dipper. Orion. The North Star.

Their light, pretty dots of white that pin back the blackness. In the most literal sense, what you see when you look to those brilliant points is the past, evidence of violent nuclear activity that broiled ages ago on distant suns. The light of these countless stars travels through space at 186,000 miles per second to arrive in this place where you are now. It is, quite simply, a remnant: light as memory.

It is past late now; we are out of time.

But the low-hanging full moon has buoyed above the trees in the back yard, and we have a telescope. So I tell the kids yes. Put on your robes and slippers. Come and see.

Our telescope was a gift from a friend who is an amateur astronomer. He used this instrument to show his children the stars, but they are grown now. It is our turn, he explained, to show our young children. The telescope, like its first owner, is top-heavy. A bulging red orb with a tubular twelve-inch snout balances on skinny black legs. Lenses of different powers of magnification fit into the removable eyepiece. This ocular assembly is inserted vertically near the top of the snout, which is pointed skyward. One literally must look down to look up.

We have to put a chair next to the telescope for our children to see anything. But first, John must set up the contraption. The children come running in their flannel and fleece, giddy with the gift of a little extra time. They jostle one another and jockey for the chair while John moves the tipsy tripod out onto the small balcony outside our bedroom. It is chilly. Curls of dead leaves crunch beneath his feet while he works to adjust the wide focus first. An arc of light flashes through the eyepiece and disappears again. Again a brightness swings into view and then out. He chases down the image, that far-flung moon, and tries to freeze it in place. Finally he traps it, fixes it in the little window. Then he pursues the finer features of the moon’s face — the crags and craters that tell its lonely old story.

But the children cannot wait for their father to finish his fiddling. The moon’s fullness is enough for them. Taking impatient turns with their heads bent to the instrument, they strain to see. “You have to look with only one eye,” I say. They try, cupping a chubby hand to the other eye, but it is hard for them to shut down their close vision in order to gain the far, hard to understand how that works. They are little.

Even in the few moments each child stands on the chair, blinking in the late night, the shimmering circle slowly slips away. Magnified, the moon’s inexorable track through the night sky carries it out of the little window, out of sight. Silently, but surely, it moves off. The moon escapes.

The children are confused. “Dad,” they complain. “Where did it go?”

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About Gina P. Vozenilek

Gina P. Vozenilek is a freelance writer and the managing editor of Sport Literate Magazine (athletic prowess not being a prerequisite of the job). She earned a master's degree in literature at the University of Iowa and is now pursuing her MFA at Northwestern, where she is also working on the ballyhooed new TriQuarterly Online, set to launch in July.

Mrs. Vozenilek feels that this is an exciting time to be studying her evolving genre, creative nonfiction. Her book in progress explores the murderous connection between her great-grandfather and Al Capone's last archenemy. Her essays have appeared in Brain, Child, Ars Medica, and Notre Dame Magazine.

4 Comments

  1. Sharon Espeseth
    Posted April 2010 at 9:51 pm | Permalink

    I thoroughly enjoyed Gina P. Vozenilek’s story, “Book of Hours.” I was so impressed with the way she tied in different, recognizable “hours” of our lives with the people who are near to us in our lives. A very moving story. Thank you.

  2. David Milliken
    Posted May 2010 at 6:26 pm | Permalink

    The interweaving of hours, however defined in minutes, hours, days, months and years, youth, middle age and old age achieve a unity here. Paradoxically I’d been a little bit off in sci-fi, I guess, thinking about Beowulf and LCDR Worf, the virtual and the real. It took me a while to get my bearings, but Vozenilek’s story at least for me provides a look into something eternal, something permanent and very real. Thank you for this.

  3. Sonya Troncoso
    Posted July 2010 at 5:10 pm | Permalink

    Gina Vozenilek’s story captures the beauty of time and how it looks on the faces of her children, her parents and grandparents through everyday events. This is a beautiful moving piece that I thoroughly enjoyed reading and identified with completely. Bellisimo!

  4. Susan Anderson
    Posted March 2011 at 10:43 pm | Permalink

    The perspective of the speed of time in relationships with ourselves to it (time) and others, enthralled me. I enjoyed the writing style and syntax. I also liked the insightfulness that I’ve often pondered, but to see it written with such clarity and creativity, is impressive. Watching older relatives forces us to reckon with the passage of time. It’s a wonderous thing to piece the pasts of what their lives were like and how they progress to the present is their legacy. The author was given a great gift to have such a relationship with her grandparents.
    Thank you, Susan Anderson

One Trackback

  • By Sunrise Rants » Almost City Living on July 2010 at 11:58 am

    […] winning essay that I will try to duplicate in quality and entertainment for my own submission at The Literal Latte. I think the publication is suitably named…don’t you? […]

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