Sitting here on a May morning, curled up in my favorite spot on the chintz sofa in front of the picture window in our living room, I’m gazing at a single salmon colored rose just peeking out of its bud cover. It seems to glow with its own light. Slowly my view spreads out, easing into the quiet of the young day and drifting across Olive Avenue to the poplars in the distance.
A gust of wind shudders through the light green sheets of leaves, when—amazing!—a cold wet sting of ocean breeze slaps me in the face. In an instant, I’m smelling the briny whiff of the Atlantic Ocean as surely if I were back on the beach I used to walk as a child. How is it possible—a November wind bringing its salty self across half a century of time and a continent of space as I sit here on a summer morning in California?
This must be what my friend Joan meant some forty years ago when she told me about pentimento. I was in my early thirties then and Joan, who seemed very old to me, was in her late fifties. We’d just finished a long hike through in the green hills of southern Ontario. It must have been June because school was out and wildflowers were everywhere. We were resting on the grass, drinking from our canteens and gazing out over a field of willowy flowers with centers composed of tiny white blossoms.
“Queen Anne’s Lace,” Joan told me.
I was admiring them in my usual extravagant way, remarking on the delicacy of their faces and the graceful way they swayed in the wind.
“Where you see the flowers,” Joan replied, “I see a pentimento.”
I’d never heard the word. “It’s a painter’s term,” she said. “Canvas is so expensive that artists sometimes paint over their old pieces to have fresh surfaces. For awhile, this works just fine. The new painting completely obscures the old one. But in time the top layers grow transparent with age and then the earlier images bleed through. That’s pentimento.”
“Pentimento,” I repeated, liking the pleasant staccato of the word in my mouth.
“It comes from the Italian meaning ‘repentance,’” Joan told me. “Because the painter has changed his mind about the composition. But still, after awhile, the original is there too.”
We sat together for some time, not saying anything, watching the swaying field of white flowers. “Where you see this hillside,” she said finally, “I see this one … and others.” Her voice took on a tremble. “I see Lucy, when she was 5, the year before she died, skipping and laughing and almost hidden as she ran through the Queen Anne’s Lace, making it shake and bend and then laughing even more.”
She paused, watching the breeze ruffle the flowers for awhile. “That memory layers over with my walking through the same fields in later years, empty and reamed out, crushing the Queen Anne’s Lace under my boots like weeds. And now, sitting here with you,” she looked up at me, her pale eyes wet. “I’m enjoying the freshness of the morning, and your good company, and the beauty of that self same flower.”
She sighed. “That’s how it is now. Behind one reality lies a deeper, more private reality, or sometimes layers of reality. None of it is lost. It’s all here, richly textured.”
I nodded, impressed. That’s what happens when you get old, I thought, and wondered if all that bleeding through didn’t get in the way of just sitting on a hillside on a summer morning. Still, I felt I had been given a glimpse of something intriguing. I wondered if I’d get to experience life in such fierce and complicated layerings when I got to my fifties.
Over the years, running along a country road or walking in the hills, I’d sometimes encounter the white faces of Queen Anne’s Lace swaying in the wind or standing erect in the morning sun. “Pentimento,” I’d hear Joan say, and imagine memories transparent as coats of veneer, laying themselves one shining sheet over the other. But now, nearing seventy, I think I had it wrong. Or if not wrong, at least a little bit off as I find with so many things about actually growing old, as opposed to my ideas about it.
Pentimento points to something far more …well, shimmering, far more alive and instantaneous than I had imagined. It’s not like the brittle cracking through of veneer and not even like the showing through of old wallpaper that get musty or stiff. And it’s not really texturing either, as if we were tapestries being woven by our life’s events. Those are just metaphors, just concepts I made up to try to understand what I hadn’t lived yet. It’s only on days like today, when a wet salty November wind off the Atlantic suddenly slaps me in my California living room that I encounter one of the hidden realities of growing old.
What I mean to say is this: there are so many depths to be plumbed as we age. And these depths – ours to fathom, if we are willing —are hidden from our younger selves. All my efforts to imagine experiences my older friends have described to me have been off, as in cut off, the way blinders cut off the view of those horses who trudge around Central Park. What I knew in my twenties and thirties and forties lacked whole dimensions of the reality that is unfolding now.
Maybe we need a code word for this kind of thing, a word that could point to the untranslatable meanings in growing old. As soon as somebody said the word, we could nod sagely or twinkle or whatever things elders are supposed to do, or just relax and give up trying to communicate something before its time has come.
Pentimento, for example. It could be a code word because of the way it flashes a sudden shift of perception, a distillation of sensations so immediate, so permeating, that reality itself is changed. A whiff of magnolia on a summer day in North Carolina can ambush you back fifty years to Wyoming Avenue in Atlantic City. You’re in your prom gown with the avocado green silk sash and the wide net skirts, pulling open a white box the florist has just delivered and your mother is standing behind you and you can hardly breathe for the heavy, clingy sweet scent and the excitement of it all.
Pentimento could signal secrets of aging. Like the fact that sometime after half a century or so, any random perfume or touch or music can be a time-machine, flinging open the time-space vector so that it evaporates for whole moments or at least gets very thin and unconvincing. Or the fact that what you used to think of as Events, with their own separate boxes and more or less reliable walls, become more fluid, their walls loosening, their contents slipping through to join each other. And here’s one more secret that you might never discuss with anyone: You might start to enjoy this unpredictability, not knowing when a wall will dissolve; you might abandon your loyalty to the convention of dividing up your life into separate boxes that contain childhood and being a mother and grad school or getting divorced or growing old.
It’s not that we never had glimpses of this fluidity of events and permeability in ourselves. But once we pass fifty or sixty or somewhere along in there, it seems to get more obvious. The times in my life I used to think needed to be packaged up and labeled or they would get away from me, are doing just that — soaking through the boxes I put them in. The boxes turn out to be made of cardboard anyway. Wet cardboard actually, so soft that I can’t take the boxes and labels and other containers seriously anymore because they’re likely to melt away with the whiff of a magnolia or poplar trees shivering in the wind.
Moreover, “memories” are not what I used to think they were—scenes and stories of things that happened in the past. My experience, memories included, is more like water colors, like transparencies that nuance on top of each other, spreading like a drop of blue in a jar of clear water, and then a drop of green, penetrating everything, coloring it lightly or darkly. Not in a muddy way, but distinctly flavoring my life.
This is how it is, this pentimento living. Savory. Not an idea but an immediacy. It makes me feel round and full and contented, including more and more of life’s experience within myself. One of the hidden secrets of growing old.
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