by Jeff Oaks
A few nights ago, I had a dream in which I saw a thing–one of those old bubble-headed hairdryers–and thought to myself
That is so funny. I’ll have to tell mom, she’ll get a kick out of that.
And then I thought, in the dream itself, oh, she’s dead now.
So now it’s something the unconscious knows.
Tonight a dream of packing up a house to move. Whose house is it? I don’t know, I just keep packing up blankets mostly, folding flat and fitted sheets the way she taught me to fold from her years as a house cleaner. First of our house, then of others’. In tonight’s dream, there were two cats, one red and one black and gray, neither of them particularly friendly, both of which I had to do something with.
I looked at her in the dream and she didn’t know either what to do. And then I knew it’s her house I’m packing up.
Knowing is a problem now. Always, of course, but mostly we forget that. Mom’s best friend’s daughter wrote me the other day:
“I think there is something about friendships with people who knew you well when you were a child. There is no pretense needed perhaps. They went through a great deal together. Then your mom took on Aunt Mar when my dad put her out. She was so good to Mar. We traveled to the beach a couple of times with carloads of teenage girls; your mom was a hoot, even mooned them in the car! She also helped my dad when he discovered he thought of a gay man as his adopted son. Ken is like my brother, godfather to Vicky’s oldest and another admirer of your mom’s. She touched people in many ways. So glad we had the privilege of knowing her.”
Things I did and didn’t know. A mother I had and didn’t have. A woman even my mother might not have remembered, the way other people sometimes remember your life better than you do, it seems. The way your students remember back to you things you said in a class that really struck them, although you don’t remember saying it at all. What did I say yesterday to a whole roomful of students?
I’ve been working most of my life on small things, the ordinary things, on the belief that everything is mysterious, interwoven with everything else. Who would you be without the rain, Thich Nhat Hahn writes, without the sunlight, the men who pick up your garbage, the workers who make your bread, the workers who framed your windows in a factory maybe in Indiana, who themselves were fed by others and sunlight, and on and on. Who would have guessed that it was seeing the cities of ants broken by men that woke the Buddha? And then the compassionate young woman who offered the simple bowl of rice that tasted so good after his deprivations?
The little things you can grasp and the unimaginable life they form. You say or do something in a moment when you forget yourself, forget propriety or dignity, and it’s how people remember you forever.
Folding strangers’ sheets in Alabama. Those strange old hair dryers we used to sit under reading magazines. Who knows what it will be? Not even you. Sometimes you have to go back to sleep to see anything at all.