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August 2, 1997

Where Time Goes

There is in certain ancient things a trace
Of some dim essence--more than form or weight;
A tenuous aether, indeterminate,
Yet linked with all the laws of time and space.
A faint, veiled sign of continuities
That outward eyes can never quite descry;
Of locked dimensions harbouring years gone by,
And out of reach except for hidden keys.

It moves me most when slanting sunbeams glow
On old farm buildings set against a hill,
And paint with life the shapes which linger still
From centuries less a dream than this we know.
In that strange light I feel I am not far
From the fixt mass whose sides the ages are.

--H.P. Lovecraft
The Fungi from Yuggoth

On a shelf in my bedroom sits an old photograph in a gold-colored frame. The photo was taken sometime in the 1910's, and has gone yellow with the passage of time. It shows a country scene, with nearly bare ground on which sparse clumps of grass grow, and in the background is a scrubby looking tree. In front of the tree, and standing just a little taller, is a young woman of about 20 years of age, with a resolute and determined expression on her face as she appears to look at something away to the right of the camera. In her hands she holds a rifle. She looks as if she could have been a pioneer woman, standing guard on the perimeter of a wagon train or maybe outside a small fort. She holds the rifle in both hands, hanging at arm's length in front of her, uncomfortably, as if she isn't very familiar with firearms. But the look on her face tells you that she will use it if she must.

The occasion on which this picture was taken has been lost to time and fading memories. It is, in fact, my great-Aunt Hulda, taken sometime in her late teens. The only thing I know about this picture is what my grandmother told me, "Oh, Hulda never fired a gun in her life. She was probably just posing with it for the picture." To see this picture is to wonder what really produced it, and to wander back through memories carefully stored away, brief images and snatches of conversation that make up my own memories of Aunt Hulda.

She was the eldest child of my grandmother's family, my grandmother being the youngest, and for the first several years of my life she lived next door to my grandmother on "A" Street in Floresville, Texas. Her husband was named Emil, and together this old German couple lived quietly, gardening and raising chickens and bees. I can still catch brief, shadowy glimpses of Uncle Emil, pipe in mouth and smoker in hand, telling me not to come too close or I might get stung. The scents of pipe tobacco and the cedar bark smoldering in the bee smoker mingle in the air, sometimes they mix in a way that is not unpleasant, but sometimes it makes me sneeze. Uncle Emil never wore any special protective clothing, just a long-sleeved shirt and a straw hat. If he ever got stung, he didn't show it.

One of my greatest joys as a four-year-old was morning coffee. Most mornings, I would walk over to their house and pop in the back door, just in time for their mid-morning coffee. Aunt Hulda would send me outside to tell Uncle Emil it was time for coffee, and we would all gather around the kitchen table, sipping our coffee and talking. Aunt Hulda mixed mine pretty weak, it was about half milk with a large helping of sugar. I don't drink it that way anymore, but sometimes, if I accidentally mix in a little too much milk, or a little too much sugar, quick flashbacks of morning coffee with Aunt Hulda and Uncle Emil can carry me away for several seconds. Our conversations were steered to matters important to me as a four-year-old boy. I remember discussing what had happened on the last episode of "Gunsmoke," boasting how high I had climbed in the chinaberry tree the day before, and once, I seemed to be seriously wondering where they got that "10, 2, and 4" that was on the Dr. Pepper bottles in Aunt Hulda's refrigerator.

Uncle Emil died when I was still very young, after that Aunt Hulda moved to Corpus Christi and we made an annual visit to her house every summer for several days each time. She died when I was about 13 or 14, some twenty years ago now. But always deep in the back of my mind I have kept her memories, the look of her round, wide face, her reddish hair going to gray, her voice like a rusty hinge with a German accent. Memories sometimes so vivid they seem not so much like memories, but like windows into the past.

And are they? Does time run in a big circle, so that by casting your vision in some strange oblique angle, you can see across the spiral into other realms of time? Or does time just run past us in one straight line, and once it's gone, it's gone? These are questions that smarter people than I have asked before, and will undoubtedly ask again. Memories are essential to us and our perception of time, because without memories, we would be unaware that there was a past, oblivious to the expectancy of any future. I have always felt that each of us essentially is what we remember, each of us the sum of our memories, each of us the accumulation of our past.

I think I do know one thing about where time goes. For some of us, it doesn't go anywhere. We store it away, and keep it for the future.