There are times when the past intersects the present, and for a brief moment we are lost in time. The word for this phenomenon sounds as mysterious as the process it defines: deja vu.
Deja vu, literally “already seen,” is like a faded photograph that suddenly snaps into focus. Any number of things can start the process – an inflection of voice, a wisp of fragrance, a particular movement of a person or thing. Then, almost before the moment of deja vu can be savored, it is gone, leaving only a lingering sense of the past.
In the process of remodeling a house over the past month and a half, granddaughter Amy recently sent me on a deja vu journey.
Amy and I were taking a break, admiring the freshly painted walls and new floors of her future home, when my granddaughter asked, “What kind of curtains do you think I should get?”
As a playful breeze sent a breath of honeysuckle-scented air through the open window, I suddenly found myself in my own grandmother's “front room.” The fragrance of honeysuckle was everywhere, carried on a summer breeze that ruffled the sheer lace curtains adorning every window in my grandmother's house.
“I like your curtains,” I remember telling my grandmother.
“I knew you would,” she replied with a conspiratorial tone. “Now don't you tell anyone, but these are magic curtains. When you watch them move you can see the wind!”
Duly impressed, I sat back to watch the gracefully swaying lace. In my mind's eye I pictured the globe neatly ruffled with tiers of delicate lace turning this way and that with the wind. My grandmother had a knack for describing the hard facts of science in a decidedly down-to-earth way. To a child sadly lacking in the scientific skills, it was a great comfort.
Perhaps her description wasn't purely scientific, but I loved the idea of watching the wind through Grandma's curtains. It was also our secret.
When company arrived, as they were wont to do on Sunday afternoons, my grandmother and I exchanged glances. The aunts and cousins would pause in mid-gossip to give us a questioning look. My grandmother never did reveal why one small girl, seemingly mesmerized by curtains, was sitting so quietly in the overstuffed rocker by the front window. Grandma seemed to sense that these practical Mid-Western kin would never understand her ideas about watching the wind.
As the May wind, still laden with honeysuckle, continued to drift through Amy's window a whole medley of childhood memories drifted in as well.
I remembered summer months when Grandma was up early – about 4 a.m. – to start breakfast for the hired hands. She turned out huge pans of flaky biscuits, and – my own personal favorite – cinnamon rolls. Platters of bacon, giant bowls of scrambled eggs, and real creamy milk were also on the table. It might have been a dieter's worst nightmare, but no one worried much about such things back then. With all the work there was to do on a farm, we did just that – work it off.
After the breakfast dishes were cleared Grandma would bring out the vegetables or fruit for canning. Together we sat and snapped beans or shelled peas while we watched big wagons of apples or other produce clattering along the bumpy road to the storage barn.
When at last the canner steamed cheerily on the stove we took a break for tea. Pouring from a battered teakettle that always sat atop the stove, Grandma used her best china cups, so delicate that a child almost dared not touch them. As my grandmother enjoyed her tea and I sipped my hot water (caffeine was not considered suitable for children in those days) the lacy curtains beside the dining room table billowed softly. It was one of my first glimpses of the small pleasures of the adult world – celebrating a job well done with good company and a cup of tea.
Even when summer was over, Grandma's curtains still framed my memories of her. Every morning when the school bus lumbered down our road, I would look toward the big white house on the hill and see the curtains move, then a hand would wave. I could almost see my grandmother's smile as she settled back in her rocker to wait for my afternoon report of the day's happenings.
In later years when the hired hands no longer came, Grandma still rose before dawn. If I happened to be spending the night I would find her seated in her favorite chair by the window. The first rays of sunlight filtering through the lace curtains behind her added highlights to the white head bowed over an open Bible. It was a wonderful testimony of faith for a child to observe.
One day, in a moment of childish insight, I understood. My grandmother loved her lace curtains for a very simple reason: in a world so often overcome by shadow, lace curtains let her see the light.
With a snap, the window closed and Amy's voice replaced those of so long ago.
“Lace curtains – really?” Amy asked as she snapped another window shut and stood back to think about it. “I don't know.”
“You will,” I said with a smile.
Deja vu, you see, is what makes grandmothers so wise.