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Joanna Weiss

Bending the speed of life

By Joanna Weiss
Globe Columnist / January 4, 2011

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I WAS READING a book about relativity when I traveled to my grandmother’s funeral last week. The book was a gift from my brother — he’s something of an amateur physicist — and it felt somehow appropriate to read it that day, to imagine the possibilities of space and time. For one, I learned that it would have required a rift in the universe to get from Penn Station to a cemetery to a restaurant in Queens, then back to Penn Station in time to catch the right train home. Real-world physics did not allow such a feat. Nor did it allow me to do what I really wanted to that day: go back in time and sit in my grandma’s apartment again, play gin rummy the way we used to, as her chicken soup warmed on the stove.

I couldn’t, and yet I can — I don’t even have to close my eyes, and I’m there, envisioning every corner, every strand of brown shag carpet in the den. There’s the lumpy chaise longue that I would lie on as a kid; there are the photo albums from the ’30s, where a gorgeous girl in a bathing suit cavorts on the beach with her friends. There’s the room where my father and uncle slept, with its ’50s-era cowboy decor. There are the wire hangers she’d rig to her terrace railing, in an endless, losing battle with the pigeons of New York.

Grandma Mae was 99 when she died, and hadn’t seen that apartment for nearly a decade; she’d had a mild stroke, and we’d moved her to a flat in a seniors’ building, arranging her furniture and art to approximate her longtime home. The apartment in Queens was where she had seemed to belong, except I realize now that she belonged in other places, too: apartments I never saw, where she’d lived as a girl, a teenager, a woman with a baby stroller.

Once a life is complete, you start to see it whole; the paper-skinned woman in the hospital bed and the girl in the black-and-white photographs are suddenly the same person, compressed. For the first time, I see my grandmother’s life through a young woman’s eyes. How hard and thrilling must it have been to leave her hometown of Fall River and her family, to make her way to New York as a girl just out of Durfee High? To work in the office of a textile company, well before the “Mad Men’’ era? To room with girlfriends on the West Side, get a ping-pong table to meet men, find the right guy at last?

These aren’t questions you think to ask as a kid, and it’s hard to find the wherewithal to ask them as a grown-up, when relationships are settled and the past feels hard to breach. About 10 years ago, when she was still healthy enough to travel, we took Grandma Mae on a Fall River tour, to pass by the homes and cemetery plots she hadn’t seen in decades. She was less nostalgic than distant and tense. She had reinvented herself long before, and the past was the past.

Or, more accurately, she chose to hold onto the parts of the past that made her happiest. Playbills from Broadway premieres. Keepsakes from her travels. Her hair, which was red until her very last day. Her vanity made us laugh, but it also preserved a version of herself that she didn’t want to let go — it helped guarantee that, even as her body failed, she never truly seemed old. If I’m whizzing through my 30s and still feel like I’m in college, did she always see herself as the girl in the photographs? Could she send herself back to those beaches at will? Did she ever imagine playing cards with me?

My book about relativity says we misperceive time, think of it as unchangeable, when it’s actually possible to slow it down. Travel quickly enough, and fewer years will pass for you, compared to people who are standing still. It’s a compelling idea, that the girl in the photos could stay that way, just by moving as fast as light. But that’s not how life feels. We are traveling fast, and faster still, and time is still zooming by.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com.