Transforming the conversation on aging.

On the Wall by Martha S. Waller

The first thing I see when I wake up is the Buddha rug – yes, it’s on the wall, where it should be. It has a top and a bottom: below are the unchanging rocks of the past and then the ever-moving waves of the present, with the mysterious clouds of the future above. Along the sides the rug tells its history in traditional Chinese characters, with a two-foot square character, BUDDHA, in the center. The descending legends on either side tell us that it was made in 1847 (the ‘twenty-second year of the Emperor Tao Kwang of the Great Ch’ing Dynasty’), for a devout-scholar surnamed Wang who presented it to Buddha. What is this artifact doing in a Christian household? It is beautiful, and it would never have survived Mao’s Great Cultural Revolution had it stayed in China. My parents bought the rug in 1918, in Beijing, where my father was teaching at the Union Medical School. They wanted an eight-by-five rug for the home into which they were moving, and this mud-daubed one was the right size; they wouldn’t have gone another dollar-Mex higher at this auction of the just-transferred American newspaperman’s household effects, but theirs was the top bid. Only when they got it home and cleaned it up did they realize the beauty of the floor covering; later they hung it on the wall. With the assistance of Chinese friends, they concluded that it must have been looted from a monastery in the hills west of Beijing during the 1911 Revolution. The rug has been a part of my home since before I can remember, first in Beijing, then in the Gwangdong, then in Amherst, and eventually in Indianapolis. It was one of the few belongings I brought to Santa Monica when I moved west in 2005. Other possessions relate to specific times in my life, but the rug has always been a part of it, a sort of changeless focal point, reminding me of my Asian infancy and tuning me in to things Chinese.


But I have waked up, and my eyes have moved to the left. The next things they see are two pictures, portraits in oils of a woman and a man, a wife and her husband. She wears her long brown hair in a chignon, and she is holding a gold –bordered white porcelain teacup, reflecting her pearl earrings. She is seated in a high-backed wooden chair, and she is dressed in a blue suit. The next portrait, similarly composed against a similar background, but subtly unlike the other, shows her husband, a handsome, strong-featured man with dark hair and bright blue eyes, seated in a burnt-orange upholstered straight chair. He wears a blue suit, white shirt, and blue and white tie, and though like his wife he looks forward, he is holding a pipe and a red-bound book. He looks like a professor – a professor of American history, and he was one for almost fifty years, after nearly five years of making American history in the U.S. Navy. The pictures show us – Mac and Martha – as we were when we had been married only some seven years in the union that was to last for sixty. The artist? William Curtis Holdsworth, then a student on summer break from Yale art school and later with Portraits Incorporated of New York. Back when we were students, Bill had introduced us to each other at a fraternity dance. The pictures were a splendid belated wedding present. I was pregnant with twins, but the picture does not even suggest the fact. Mac and I have changed profoundly, with our five children and our parallel careers. Both of us were to have white hair well before he died.


Moving on to the left, my eyes turn past the wall-wide window, and then they reach the other side of the glass they come to a picture of a different sort, a twelve-by-fifteen-inch framed photograph of the first page of a medieval manuscript. There are the handsome orthography, the rubrication, the brightly colored and golden illumination, and the noble coat of arms. The work opens with the words: “Este libro que es dicho….” Yes, it is written in a Spanish that is almost unchanged by the six centuries that have passed since a scribe took quill and oak-gall ink to vellum. And why should this be on my wall? I have it thanks to the expert paleographer-librarian-curator of a private collection in Madrid who understood when I explained that, in addition to the complete microfilm of the manuscript, I longed for a reproduction in color of the first page. She realized that I needed the steady inspiration which that only splendid page could provide. This is a book that I believe Geoffrey Chaucer must have read in its entirety. I have spent most of my spare time in the last thirty-five years writing the book that will demonstrate the basis of my conclusions. Yes, it too is a part of my life, bridging the time from before our retirement through my widowhood to my move into a single room in a senior residence.


My eyes move around another corner to the smallest frame of all, a mere eight-by-eleven-and-a-half inches. What can be so small but so meaningful to me as to go with the rug, the two portraits, and the folio page? A group picture of the family? No, too small. A piece of Victorian needlework perhaps? No. Oh, a diploma, of course. It’s the right size, and there have been so many, Mac’s and mine, from high school, from college, and for post-graduate degrees. Or is it a picture of the destroyer on which Mac served as supply officer from its commissioning in the Brooklyn Navy Yard in 1943 through V-J Day in Tokyo Bay? Again, no. Actually it is a document that reads: “Military Intelligence Division – War Department – acknowledges with appreciation the loyalty and devotion to duty of Martha S. Waller….” There must be a story about that! Of course there is. But I am still under oath to tell nothing about it. It represents a sort of remote psychological island, just as distinct as, say, marriage in wartime, stay-at-home motherhood, becoming a professor like my husband and my parents, or realizing the deferred dream of literary research.


So I have gone from a toddler to elder senior citizen, under the aegis of Buddha (though I’m a Presbyterian), with a fine young adulthood graced by a happy marriage and children of whom we have every reason to be joyfully proud, followed by a seasoned maturity flowering in the quiet satisfaction of fulfillment and a sense of continuing involvement in our writing. All that, plus the feeling that, besides being incredibly lucky – or blessed beyond measure – we indeed were and will always be members of what Studs Terkel called the greatest generation.


Martha S. Waller

November 19, 2009

[There is inconsistency in the Romanization of Chinese, jumping from the obsolete Wade form to Ren Min; I apologize.]

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