PRAIRIE DU CHIEN — In the recesses of our family attic, we found a time machine. In sorting through the remnants of our lives, we found a pendulum clock buried among some family artifacts. The clock hands were rusted, the face stained, the wood frame cracked, and the pendulum missing. We held up the clock for inspection, thought it interesting, and then set it aside for disposal.
Then the clock reappeared. Its time in our family had not ended.
It returned in a photograph we found that showed my father standing next to his chair in a storefront barbershop in downtown Prairie du Chien in the late 1940s. My father was a barber when he descended from the high country of Westby into the Mississippi Valley looking for a job and a new life.
In the photo, my father, white shirted and black tied, put the finishing trim on a young crewcut patron while his fellow barbers perform their stylistic magic on two other customers. All of them stare into the camera lens as if peering through a door between past and present. The checkerboard floor is feathered in fallen hair. Florescent light fixtures hang from the ceiling. An assortment of equipment and ointments line the shelves.
On the back wall of the shop hung the clock. I glanced at the clock sitting in a heap on the garage floor, then back to the photo. In an instant, I stepped through the portal into the past.
In early science fiction movies, time machines weave their way back in history while the clock on the wall spins in reverse. Iconic moments in history fly by as if flung by the Kansas tornado in the Wizard of Oz. Yet now the clock, its hands rusted in place, serves as the vehicle of transport while my mind spins in reverse.
Kip Thorne, theoretical physicist, Nobel Laureate, and the consultant for the mind-spinning movie “Interstellar,” says that time messaging, if not time travel, might be possible via “backward-in-time gravitational force.”
In the movie, Cooper, played by Matthew McConaughey, communicates the secrets of the universe to his daughter in the past using gravity waves to move the books on a shelf — and yes, nudge the hands on a watch.
Looking at my father’s old clock, simultaneously sitting on the garage floor and hanging on the back wall in the 1940s photo, I felt nudged. I felt transported back to a place and time before I was born, standing next to my father. What would I tell him?
I would tell him that he still stands here with me, along with my mother and departed siblings, in a palpable way that requires no bending of physics or spinning of clocks. I would tell him that like the sun that sheds light on the dome of our world long after sunset, he still casts light on my life. I would tell him all the things we left unsaid.
I removed the clock from the garbage heap. My wife sent it with another of her family artifacts over to a furniture restorer in eastern Iowa. I hope they can restore it to a condition suitable for display on a wall that might reappear in a photo 50 years hence.
We stand with one foot each in past and present. The past lives in the present as surely as our mother’s eyes live in the mirror. Time machines exist in movies, imagination and theory. Yet they also exist in attics, as sensory pry bars in the process of sorting through a life.