Helena Writes #31: On the place where time doesn’t exist

Helena Writes, Helena Clare Pittman's monthly Center column on her writing life
Date Posted:
2/10/2021

Helena Clare Pittman, one of the Center’s most dedicated teachers, has written, painted, and taught her entire life. In her monthly Helena Writes series, she shares a lifetime of wisdom, one pearl at a time.

In her 31st post, she writes of cherished time spent with her father when she was a child, and what it has taught her in adulthood about art and life. Enjoy!

A seeing that feels

My father was a projectionist. He showed the first talking motion picture in Canada. It must have been in Quebec. He must have lived in Montreal. There were pictures of Montreal in our photo album--black pages, crumbling, glued black corners.

How else to put together the pieces of that story that came to me in that single phrase? Was it, I showed the first “talkie” in Canada—? Was it, Your father showed the first “talkie” in Canada—? That doesn’t sound like my mother. She spoke careful English—people asked her if she was from Boston, or England. She was from the Lower East Side, NYC, then Brooklyn. Her sister, my Aunt Dot, and her brother, my Uncle Ben, spoke with New York accents. But Aunt Rose and my mother had assumed a level in themselves that cultivated beautiful speech. They both said pi-ahhno, for piano. Aunt Rose said tom-ahh-to. Not my mother. But she would never have used the word “talkie.”

So it must have been my father, who spoke with a Brooklyn accent. I only remember the snippet of speech, not my father’s voice saying it. Maybe it’s because I lost both my father and mother early, that I put them together like jigsaw puzzles to know them now. Metaphysical, prolonged eidetic puzzles, to forge the experience into some kind of language. A seeing that feels the way seeing does when writing fiction. Realer than real. The thing underlying the story.

My father didn’t boast. He must have simply told me that he showed the first talkie picture in Canada. They were called talkies, the next technology after silent films. But it didn’t mean much to my mind at 7 or 8. What context would I have had? I didn’t have an historical timeline yet, of the world or of my parents’ lives. It was the feeling under my father’s words that recorded itself in me. My father’s feeling was, then, and is now, my ground. Not his feelings. But his Feeling. The world of his feeling that included the cosmos.

My father showed the first talkie film in Canada.

Moving pictures

When I taught Art History, I became enthralled with the cave paintings, 40,000 years old, discovered in France and Spain. Lascaux and Altamira. Preparing for the lessons I taught, I imagined the long, narrow tunnels, like birth canals, that the painters of those images had to deliver themselves through to get to the enormous and majestic chambers of those underground caves. They had to have had torches, they had to see! Did they hold the torches before them, pushing themselves on, or did they kindle them once they had reached the caves? We know there were torches because we have found them, and oxygen from the myriad small openings from above-ground. We’ve also found the paint pots that held ochres, red and yellow, and charcoal mixed with animal fats and vegetable oils that painted the images of those deer and bulls, and ibexes, turtles, snakes—and were used for the pressed prints of human hands. We’ve found their styluses and brush handles, dropped from a wooden scaffold, lost, until the late 1800s when people stumbled upon caves, long buried under thousands of falls and springs. Those images are painted in oil paint!

And I realized, as I disappeared into the photos of the caves, that those images moved in the torch light. They were moving pictures. Those deer were running. And on the cave floors were bone whistles. There was music, of course there was! And drumming. The drum is from the beating heart. Rhythm is natural to music makers. Percussion!

When I was fourteen, my father took me to see movies my mother had no interest in seeing. Foreign films. I doubt my mother had the patience to read subtitles. But I was young, and had good eyes. 

My father and I could spend time together. 

These were serious films, Ballad of a Soldier, The Cranes Are Flying, Russian films, heavy with feeling. Not my mother’s fare. But mine, and my father’s. We were kindred spirits. I didn’t think about it, and maybe he didn’t either. It was easy time together, natural.

He also took me to see Jazz on a Summer’s Day, filmed at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival the year Anita O’Day sang “Sweet Georgia Brown.” Jazz—the music that would run like a river through my life and flow out through my children, my daughter singing at the Bitter End, in Greenwich Village, my son a jazz pianist. It came as a slow-moving shock when I realized that my father and I watched Thelonius Monk together that day. Monk. My father! These are revelations that make sense, build the whole that is my family. Parents lost early are a mystery. I knew them when I was young, and they were gods. I decipher them now as people. My adult self pieces it together and it makes me whole.

My parents loved each other. It’s taken me a long time to understand that, too. And my father and I were friends. We are still—a kinship of souls. The more I write about it, the clearer I see it.

When I was older, after my father was gone, I saw Cinema Paradiso, a gorgeous Italian film, about a projectionist and a young boy-apprentice. A tender film about a friendship between an adult and a child. I see the two of them now, the light from the projector flickering through the frames of cellulose film, flashing on the faces of the boy and the man. The lens of the projector casting the life-sized image on the screen for the audience.

And there for me is the parallel of the cave to my father in his own projection box high above the audience sitting in the darkened theatre below. Moving pictures. 

Awe.

Memory, the mysterious interior where time doesn’t exist. My father and the caves. My father and me.

My father was a projectionist and showed the first talkie in Canada. When he was a young man, before he became an engineer, before he wrote the manual on radar for the Navy. Before he was a physicist, and a teacher. 

The caves, the memory, the stories, Life, all of it sacred.   

Is there a scene from your childhood or adulthood that runs like a film in your mind? Have you ever written about it? What did you think of Helena’s latest column? Share with us in the comments.

Related reading: Helena Writes

Want to receive tips and inspiration like this in your inbox every Sunday morning? Join our email list community! You will receive weekly advice, a year’s worth of weekly writing prompts as a FREE download, and be eligible to participate in our monthly photo prompt contest for a chance to share an original piece of writing with our community of more than 1,500 writers.