Oakwood Cemetery, Troy, New York, November 17, 2015. Photo by Rose
1904 was a year of communication. The Brazilian priest and scientist Landell de Moura obtained three patents for wireless technology: “The Wave Transmitter” (October 11, 1904), “The Wireless Telephone”, and the “Wireless Telegraph” (both dated November 22, 1904). Jagadis Chunder Bose patented the coherer detector (semiconductor) on March 29, 1904, and the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company was awarded the patent for a four-circuit wireless radio apparatus on June 28, 1904. There were others, of course, all contributing pieces of the system, parts of the communication/information highway. In 1904 the world could speak at great distances, without wires, across oceans.
In 1904 William Macauley, actor, was touring the opera houses of the American Midwest. Which is where I thought we would start this story. Communication, however, involves at least two parties, and when at least one of those parties is an actor (an opinionated one, impatient) and the other is a writer (an uncertain one, possibly lazy), the process can become a little complicated. Especially if one is speaking from another realm. Or looking over the shoulder of the other, typing. Or not, apparently.
“Actors act,” (William ‘says’ and I type). “It’s that simple. Start there. That’s your story, no need to embellish. You see us, hear us, inhabiting the bright other world beyond the blazing flames of the foot lights, the other world of luminous brightness, of breath, of life, of music and real language, up here on the stage, framed by a proscenium arch swagged by curtains that lift and reveal a world more real than the meaningless fumbling shapes and mumbling in the dark below. Look at me, look at this more vivid creation parallel to your pale reality. Now tables turned, the roles reversed, how do you like that, which is the fiction, which is the fact? Tell me, I’ll play my part, of course. It’s what actors do.
“Because that was my life, acting, my real life, what I did with those years. Or if you insist, begin before that, fine, put in the part about hiding my face in my mother’s skirts on the dock if you will, 1876, a child, salt and fish in the air, tears, brine, fear, adventure (the images are coming too fast to keep up). The shiny sheer slick black wall of the ship rising up mammoth overhead, impossible future, bidding adieu, forbidding on the other side of a swelling gulley of oily water waiting to churn and widen, the crowd around us men mostly, a few women, a rude dull crowd in black, in wool, me small with my face in mother’s skirts, pulling the thick cloth to me, the rich reassuring scent of vinegar and roses, wood smoke, bread, heartbreak, life. Times would come when I stood on a stage in a strange town and remembered and could have embraced, did embrace the curtain between the real and the imagined, hanging velvet of sweat and sweet dust, buried my face, wrapped the heavy familiar folds around me, giant mother. Lifted up by a boy in the wings, pulled up by a heavy rope hand, let the stars through the coy fringed swoop to the rich applause beyond, beckoning in the smoky light, the fluttering of hands and joy, the humanity and hope on the other side of the dream.
“Or start in Ireland in 1870, another century entirely, another between it and you in your present; not mine, I barely know it. The place of my birth is an unknown land conjured by those who were doomed to remember it, their memories borrowed and stolen, a troubled tortured loyalty passed on to me as inheritance to be treasured, squandered, regretted: a curse, a legacy, a gift. Northern Ireland is a poor woman crying out in pain in childbirth in the night, Ballymoney a dim dream of low life and low ceilings and damp stone, of moss and smoke in dark corners, straw, and a gut deep ache which is forever something that will feel like homesick or hunger or both. County Antrim where the giant’s causeway of cobblestones spreads out in wet wind-whipped octagonal piles, reaching toward another shore, a place a father who frightened would take you, unnatural, your Disneyland can’t compete, blocks of stone spilled into the sea, begin there, or the pony cart to the train, the train itself, the dock, the departure, mother and sisters and brother and me, the youngest four, Da and the two older boys gone over ahead of us.
“They were strangers to me always afterward, the older family men in America, the ones who went before, you should understand that, Thomas the oldest and the first with a job in the mill, making a place for the rest of us to land, to leave, to come back to at the end. I was the baby, a position with privileges but it came with duty too, people forget that, what the youngest child is for, the responsibility. She was everything to me, Mother, and after her my dear Sister, less than a year between us, virtually twins. Then Jane, five years older than us, Little Mother we called her, and tougher, more of a threat. And John, older by a couple years, John the brother I loved the most, and then the strangers, my father and the older ones, Alex and Tom.
You type fast,” (he ‘observes,’ and I type). “Start there.”
And so we begin.