My wife comes from a large and exceptionally long-lived family, descendants of Jewish immigrants who arrived from Latvia at the turn of the last century. Her father was 98 when he lost two older sisters, aged 100 and 102. At a family picnic, the daughter of one of these sisters brought along some old photographs she had found while going through her mother's things. There were snapshots of grandparents, various aunts and uncles and cousins, some of the pictures dating back to the 1930s and perhaps even earlier. One was of my in-laws as a young couple, and several were of my wife as a little girl. The photos brought back a lot of memories, which may be the point of such family rituals. We feel our ties to one another are strengthened when we are anchored together in time.
What exactly is this anchorage? At my grandmother's funeral when I was 16, I remember being mystified when my grandfather looked back on 50 years of married life, now sadly ended, and wondered aloud, "Where did it all go to?" At the time, of course, I had no comparable period in my own life to look back on and assumed my octogenarian grandfather must have been terribly weighed down by the passage of years. Now that I am a grandfather myself I am better able to understand. I have some memories of 50 years ago that are as faded as an old family photograph and others as fresh as a backward glance. Life sometimes has the feel of an afternoon spent in a darkened movie theater, when suddenly it is all over and you find yourself blinking in the sunshine, feeling as you have just awakened from a dream.
Time differs fundamentally from every other type of measurement. Take away the yardstick, measuring cup or scale and we still have the girth, volume and heft of the objects being measured. Take away the clock, and what remains of time? Past events have already disappeared, and the events we mark now will momentarily share the same fate. Time, it would appear, is tangibly nothing more than the measure of a clock's own ticking. And yet we all have a subjective sense of time passing, even if we can't point to what it is. Unfortunately, this sense of duration is as variable as our own moods. Time flies when we are having fun and slows to a crawl when we are bored; in other words, it is not something you can set your watch by.
When I was a commuter on the old New Haven line years ago, I noticed a curious phenomenon as the train started out of the station. The train would glide forward silently for a few seconds before the pull of the engine could be felt, then the car in which I was riding would shudder and lurch forward. For those few moments, I had the eerie sense of being on a boat that had slipped its moorings and had begun to drift downstream. Often there was another train waiting at the platform next to ours. If I happened to be looking out the window when one or the other train began to glide forward, it was almost impossible to tell during those first few seconds which of us was moving. More than once I was fooled into thinking my train was leaving the station, when in fact the other had started moving in the opposite direction.
So it is with time. We get so wrapped up in passing events that it is very easy to imagine ourselves being pulled forward by a powerful engine of time. But what if we are really standing still, the core of our being anchored in eternity? How could we tell? I think we know, deep down. The middle-aged face that stares back at me in the mirror bears little resemblance to the fresh-faced youngster I sometimes still feel myself to be, underneath it all. The fresh-faced youngster is now my son, yesterday's toddler already grown to manhood. The father who was such a powerful presence in my childhood is now me, and my own father has passed on. Can this be me as well? All that is and was and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.