I am a visual learner, meaning also that my mind sometimes wanders during verbal activities. Especially if something catches my eye or attention. I think about this occasionally in the context of my own aging. Age-related macular degeneration lies heavily in my gene pool: I walked with my mom in her final years, a decade for her of both struggle and acceptance as her vision declined. Though I may be lucky enough to not have AMD enter my life, I tell myself I should work to improve my ability to better use my auditory sense, especially with books.
When Russ and I bought our first house in 1987, borrowing some cash from my parents (Dad in his half-serious half-joking way: “This does mean you will get married some day?”) we felt lucky to buy a Seattle fixer, owned by an elderly, widowed and retired University of Washington Professor. This pre-dated people overbidding outrageously to secure a home and this one was left a mess upon closing: it creeped us out to eat or cook in the kitchen for weeks after we gloved up to take on the cleaning. Several rooms in that 1926 house had dated wallpaper, painted over in a chipped, unattractive mauve/gray. We rented a steamer to remove the paper, stripping the walls down to lath and plaster, me sending in samples to analyze for asbestos – having recently completed a graduate degree in industrial hygiene. We donned respirators, deadlines with a baby expected not far in the horizon. If was wonderful; at least from today’s rearview mirror.
Now we’re in that next house, the one we bought new, occupied now with us as first owner for 30 years: longer than anyplace either Russ or I have lived before. A home, that at the beginning felt too fancy for me. This home has wallpaper in two rooms, and we must have grown to like them (or have been too busy with life to do anything about) as the same papers exist three decades later. Maybe, now at sixty, my style has changed beyond what I thought was me at thirty. Yes, we tell our grown children: that happens, sometimes when you have no idea how or why. Kind of like how most of us begin to see parts of our parents creep into us, never imagining that possible when young.
All this preambles how our dining room wallpaper now haunts my soul with memories. Throughout the pandemic, day after day, I work remotely in this dining room. I’m sick of working isolated in this room, but wise enough to know how fortunate I am compared to so many other workers, and try not to complain. (Um, that’s a lie, as some of you know – I complain to those closest to me.) Day after day I am surrounded by a wallpaper of climbing lilacs, as memories of the 30 years of moments in this room pop in once in awhile. The dining room where we share holiday and special family dinners dating back to when my mom was younger than I am now and our kids and their cousins were babies. The dining room where I put a blanket over the table to create a den for Erin’s 5th Teddy Bear Picnic inspired birthday party. The room where Mom made her bedroom during her final four months of life. Its wallpaper stares back at me during every Zoom or WebEx meeting comprising so many minutes of my work day. The climbing lilacs hover in every recording filmed of me, no matter work or pleasure: teaching about Total Worker Health or talking about my books or during large family Zoom meetings. Both my work and personal mac laptops are too old to be able to change the background: the lilacs accompany me everywhere virtually when I need a private space to work, excepted only during the four months Mom lived with us, me then tucked into a kitchen corner amidst the household chaos of our life then.
But yes, it is all good. How lucky I am to have memories brought back by mere wallpaper. Of Dad eating birthday cake or Mom lifting a toast of sparkling cider or Emily blowing out her candles. Of Mom, eyes closed, nearing death. And my friends and colleagues know now, because it happens once in a while even when teaching via virtual platforms, that once in awhile something comes over me. My eyes water, my voice wavers, spirits of my past bubble up. I give it a moment, breathe deeply, they pass and I move back to the present. As we do every day on this planet when our past catches up to the now.