By third grade I couldn’t see the chalkboard. My mother took my sister and me on the Charleston city bus from The Old Citadel to the oculist’s office on Rutledge Avenue. Eyesight, insight, hindsight: almost always my preferred sense. As I lay in bed with measles, before we moved from Beaver, Pennsylvania, to Charleston, the window beside my bed glowed red-dark, red-dark. The rhythm of awareness, knowledge of self in tune with the world, was my first memory. I was probably three. The florist’s sign on the first floor below our apartment tinted the twilight with this glow.
I can almost, but not quite, call up the name of the squat little oculist or optometrist (forgive me, physicians, if I unwittingly demote you). What remains unforgettable were the glasses around his beady eyes and above, strapped to his head, a much larger, third eye. My father also wore glasses–they, in themselves, were part of the family scenery. But this third eye shone silver menacing, protruding like a strange wing, about to lift off part of his scalp. His face was very close to mine as I sat upright and rigid in his slippery leather chair, with headgear of my own clamped over my eyes as he slid lens after lens into place. “Is this better or worse? Better or worse?” It might have been the first time anyone cared so precisely about my opinion.
And now, because it knocks insistently for entrance, I have to recall the billboard from The Great Gatsby, an enormous oculist’s sign which looms over the “East Egg, West Egg” characters of Daisy and Gatsby. Ominous, yet observant; hideous yet godlike in its elevation, this eye takes the measure of the wasteland between New York and Gatsby’s Long Island pleasure palace, between Daisy’s beauty and Gatsby’s enormous pretensions about to come to crush. It’s one of Fitzgerald’s genius strokes, criticism rendered in everything crass about American advertisement.
With my blue-rimmed glasses on my face, I finally could see the chalkboard in third grade. I quickly learned to identify the difference between “there” and “their.” Soon I could multiply and achieve long division. Now, the visual world in its most minute particulars demands that I take off my glasses to get a better look. Older eyes, just as my father had, though vision was not his primary organ, that being supplied by the ears. He and my opera- singing sister have heard things in my voice and others which completely elude me. Perhaps it’s a matter of training, but no, it’s deeper and more elementary than that. Part of the individual essence, the bits of family inheritance passed on.
Vision’s hold on me comes, instead, from the North Dakota, German-Swedish side, from my mother’s love of visual contemplation, from her absolute fury, in her last years, if any item of her beloved visual arrangement was moved out of place. Never a meticulous housekeeper, she instead fixed her world between the Viennese clock glowing white and gold on the mantel and the dining room blinds opened just enough to let morning sun stream in without the neighbors being able to see. For the last fifteen years of her life, when she lived on after my father died in the big house which they had bought “west of the Ashley,” her careful placement of beautiful objects and the familiar, seasonal fall of light and dark wove her into a rhythm of safety. This insistent rhythm never bored her. It was the red-dark, red-dark pump of heart’s blood, of a solitary soul recognizing itself in a regular world.