with Alicia Mayer

The boring places where obsessions are born

“At some point, while I was still on the article’s first page, the young man hopped into the doctor’s office. I kept reading. He would need stitches for sure. The receptionist kept typing. It occurred to me this would be the perfect gig to write your novel. Answer the phone, greet the sick and wounded, then block it all out and keep typing.”

Some time in 1994 I was sitting in a doctor’s office and picked up a magazine while I waited. It was a Saturday morning and my three year-old daughter was home with her father. The doctor’s waiting room was as drab as they get in Australia – “hard-wearing” carpet (a euphemism for ugly) and a nondescript wall color practically plastered over with the usual assortment of posters about dangerous freckles, immunization, smoking and the like.

Doctors aren’t the same money-spinners in Australia as they are in the US, so your average suburban GP’s office, and especially one in an older neighborhood in Canberra, the nation’s capitol, would be compact, drab and not the place you would expect a life-changing experience to occur.

As I sat there waiting to be called into the doctor’s office, the elderly receptionist typed away looking down her bifocals at the typewriter. She was entirely uninterested in me or the young man with what looked like a hastily bandaged foot leaking blood along one side. Why he hadn’t gone to a hospital emergency room, I had no idea.

He had come in about ten minutes after me, hopping in on his one good foot and wincing. When the receptionist stood up and got a look at the bloody bandaging she informed me matter-of-factly that the boy would be next. Sure, I said and glanced at him but he looked away quickly as if he was sorry to have taken my place. Or maybe he was ashamed for whatever led to his injury.

This made me wonder

how he had hurt himself but I knew it would remain a mystery and now I had no idea how long I would be sitting here waiting for the doctor. On the side table next to me was an assortment of magazines ranging from the perennial National Geographic, a cook book or two, to a selection of Australian women’s magazines. I rifled through and found one that featured a beautiful smiling woman with her toddler daughter on her lap. The cover line introduced her and trilled about her brilliant career.

I went straight to the page and began reading. The woman was a lawyer, had just become a barrister and was juggling the demands of a growing practice with marriage and their first child. I remember thinking this all sounded very topical to me. I too was juggling a career with my first child – also a toddler. I wondered if this woman and I would be friends if we lived in the same city. Perhaps we would meet at the mother’s group and our daughters would play together.

At some point, while I was still on the article’s first page, the young man hopped into the doctor’s office. I kept reading. He would need stitches for sure. The receptionist kept typing. It occurred to me this would be the perfect gig to write your novel. Answer the phone, greet the sick and wounded, then block it all out and keep typing.

I finished the article and wondered what this woman and her little girl were doing right at that minute while I sat in the doctor’s office. I had asked Wayne to help our daughter tidy her room and maybe after they could take a walk to the local park for some fresh air. Perhaps this mother was doing something similar with her little one.

I flicked around the pages but got the odd sense that something was not right – the cosmetic ads seemed strangely off-key. Hmm…? I flipped the magazine to the front to read the date. It was 15 years old.

The woman I had just read about was no longer at the beginning of her career – she was well and truly in the middle of it. She would have fought hundreds of cases. She would have had crushing losses and terrific triumphs. Her office would be well lived in; files stacked high. Perhaps all around her office. She would have a reputation. She would have made good on the large salary and her wealth long-established. Maybe she had even managed to fit in another child or two into her jam-packed life and was truly one of those rare women that can build an empire and a family. Unlike doctors in Australia, as in the US, lawyers do make fortunes and the sky’s the limit.

Her daughter, the cute chubby blue-eyed toddler, would be in her first year of university. Perhaps like her mother, she was studying law. Or maybe they had their tussles on this, and she had pursued an arts degree. She might be an older sister, have a boyfriend, had her first kiss long before and was someone’s best friend.

I was entirely knocked off my axis and sitting in my own iso-booth where all I could hear was a strange pulsing like my heartbeat in my ears. I would not have heard the office door slam closed even though I sat right next to it; or the boy grunt as the doctor stitched his wound. I could no longer hear the loud ringing of the phone, and I had nearly leapt out of my seat the first time it rang. It was the loudest phone ring I had ever heard, but now I couldn’t hear it at all.

I had truly thought these people were walking the same plane as me, but they weren’t. Instead of being just a handful of years older than me, the woman was a generation older than me. Instead of being a sweet little one like my daughter, the toddler was now a woman.

It was this moment in the doctor’s office that I now know my love of our family’s photos was born, though it would be nearly 20 years before I would get full access to them.

Today, I marvel at the people in each gorgeous B&W image. I can’t get enough of the small details that make up the lives they were living in that moment. It is that moment that becomes the epicenter of an entire essay because in reality you can take any moment in one’s life and rewind from there all the way back to conception and keep going past that generation and on to the next. Time is the ultimate continuum and we are just a second into it, caught standing at the fridge staring inside, sitting on a train picking lint off of our sweaters, or smiling for the camera.

When you are staring at a masterful B&W portrait of a silent movie star long dead, now dust, you can take that moment in time and fast forward and zip past any milestone you like all the way to their gravestone.

I do this now and still wonder what that woman and her daughter are doing.

[Photo caption: My great grandmother Ida Mayer Cummings in an undated portrait by Ruth Harriet Louise, the only female photographic studio manager during that era and a portrait master who took thousands of glamorous shots during her five years at MGM. See my May 24, 2012 post about her short life.]

Copyright Alicia Mayer 2012.

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