Surviving Objects by Ruth Rosengarten


My Hair

An early lesson in loss and regret. I am thirteen. Everyone praises my long, auburn hair. But models in magazines sport liberated pixie cuts. It’s the 1960s.

“You’d look beautiful with your hair short like that,” my mother says. “You have such a pretty face.” Over a short period, she says this many times.

The pretty face seems to be in opposition to something else that I don’t have, but I don’t quite know what that is. I scour the few magazines we have at home. The models are doe-eyed. I hanker for their angular, whimsical loveliness, the crisp geometry of their short dresses, the boys they surely attract.

I take up my mother’s suggestion. I need to believe her. By which I mean, I need to believe that she knows something about short hair; that her urgings are not selfish, not personal. I need to believe that she is not prompted by a desire to be free of the daily ritual of the school plait, nor driven by an inchoate emotion.

I look at her hair, made lustreless by straightening and hair spray, ruined by a longing to alter the curly course of nature. It’s a longing I will inherit. But I will form the word “jealousy” later; perhaps years later. In the meanwhile, I go along with the idea of the haircut, despite the last minute hesitation I see in the hairdresser’s mirror. I am facing this mirror full on, and a green salon cape is draped around my shoulders. Tears emboss my cheeks. Still, I have an impulse that I now recognise as fully, characteristically, mine. “Don’t cut it in bits,” I say, “ cut off the whole thing.” Lop off the pony tail so I can keep it, is what I mean. So I can keep it.

Now slightly matted, the hair is wrapped in the acid free tissue paper I use to separate drawings and photographic prints. It is as dead as a relic, yet still it has a wild, weird electricity that reminds me of its connection to a living body. My body. After chopping off the pony tail, I will feel free, but soon I shall be bereft and unsexed. For forty years after that haircut grows out, I will remain fetishistically bound to my head of long, burnished curls, the first descriptor I shall ever used when portraying myself. My intimate calling card. Then menopause will teach me the uncertain pleasures of letting go of bodily ideals, attachments; ageing will teach me of the joys of losing a fixed tag and gaining changeable hair. And an ongoing relationship with a hairdresser.

But I am getting ahead of myself. What I want to think about now is the twisted rope in tissue paper, beribboned at either end, safeguarded for decades, through three emigrations and many more house moves. Why? What gets kept? What gets thrown away? I recognise, in that early impulse to preserve the severed pony tail, a fascination I shall always nurture with remnants and traces. I photograph leftovers, roadkill, footprints, beds that have been slept in. Tracks, evidence.

Such traces are snapshots. They both fix time and serve as reminders of what has been lost. If I’d been a mother, like artist Mary Kelly, I’d have made an archive of my child’s nail parings, the fine curls of the first haircut, traces of milk and poo, precious scribbles. Without children, it’s my own body, my own life, that has become the source of such longing and loss, preservation and release. I am consumed by the wish to document the traces of my own life; or rather, to document my life through its traces.

We keep some things, we discard others. It occurs to me that, like taking photographs, writing might be one way of keeping things. That writing about things might enable me to detach myself from those very things physically, materially. I long to achieve a whittling down, an existential minimalism, disburdening myself for the next stage. Making the job easier for those who’ll have, one day, to clean up after me. Yet I need to know I haven’t lost those objects that contain my history, my stories.

That’s but one step away from telling my stories through these objects.



My Parents’ Table Lighter

I don’t remember a time without this table lighter. Though my mother smoked until her death in 2012, it stood as a decorative rather than a functional item at her last address: Madison Gardens, a geriatric residential home in Johannesburg. This, in other words, was an object of sentimental attachment, and among the few possessions she kept, after scaling down her life’s booty to fit within the perimeter of a single room. Together with a chunky, orange and brown ceramic ashtray dating from the 1970s and a grainy colour photograph of my father smiling, also dating from 1970s, the lighter was part of a shrine to a past life.

A table lighter! Who has those any more? With its bronze duck-like head, its extravagant, implausible realism and its petrol odour, the thing suspends time. A temporal bubble into which my parents float, each with lit cigarette in hand. And I realise that the image I have, the primary image of this lighter, comes from early in my childhood, before we left Israel. It must be 1962, the summer before we emigrate. The flat is on Weizman street, just south of Bnei Dan Street, and a very short walk from the Yarkon River. On the banks of the Yarkon, there’s a small pine wood where my brother Dan and I sometimes play. I have no memory of who takes us there.

The flat is in a compact, white, modernist block with a patch of lawn in front, a small date palm planted in the centre. The balconies now have blinds or shutters all round, protecting them in the harsh summer, but we don’t have these in 1962. Dan and I share the bedroom that gives onto the balcony; my parents sleep in the lounge that also has a door onto the balcony. There is a sofa. Though they are not Israelis, like most Israelis, my parents’ preferred style is “modern,” not “traditional.” The sofa has clean lines and is upholstered in a black and yellow fifties fabric. It unfolds into a double bed for them at night. I remember a large radio, and the upright piano my parents bought me with money from Mummy’s childless aunt, Manya, who died on the operating table in Haifa in 1961. And on the ubiquitous coffee table, the cigarettes. The lighter with its captivating, suffocated seascape.

The lighter travelled with my parents from Tel Aviv to Johannesburg, and later, I brought it back to England, along with other bits and pieces that I gathered from my mother’s room after she died. These spoils included a stash of photographs from a box kept at the foot of her bed; a red leather box filled with pathetically gleaming, gilded earrings; and a small plastic laundry carousel from which were hanging several pairs of large knickers (stiff and thin from much laundering) and two pale, faintly yellowed, long-sleeved vests. I kept the carousel intact, old underwear and all, travelling with its arms folded into my suitcase, always intending to photograph it. I hadn’t yet encountered Miyako Ishiuchi’s photographs of her mother’s intimate belongings, but as soon as I saw them, I experienced that shudder of serendipitous kindredness that sometimes erroneously goes by the name of influence.

The carousel hangs – at once sad and accusatory – in a walk-in wardrobe, nudging me to decide upon its fate. I shall have to make up my mind when I eventually move somewhere smaller. I play with the word “downsize” and all that it evokes, all that it evoked for my mother too. The ridiculous table lighter, however, is smugly sure of its fate: it stays. Or rather, it comes with me. How could I do anything but keep such a strange, compelling object? Small enough to pocket, it emits the ineradicable aura of childhood; my childhood. The tiny marine world it contains still exercises upon me the powerful, coercive attraction of the miniature: the sense of dominion won through the visual possession of a frozen world writ small.

Tableau vivant: not so much a picture of vitality, as its opposite, a dead world, fossilised. The shells – some of them minute – and the submerged aquatic vegetation, that perky little seahorse and the tiny bed of sand, are all immobilised within the aspic of a small plastic cube. Like a photograph, this embalmed world serves to remind me simultaneously of life and of life’s arrest. And like mimetic toys, the lighter produces in me an uncanny shudder, a dreamy sense of the disconcerting power of replicas, of miniatures. It is the power of producing a dream-like state, immersing us in the infinite time of reverie.

The time of reverie, like the time of the unconscious, is held in suspension, existing in an endless present tense. It is the tense of association, of associative recollection. I see, in my mind’s eye, this lighter occupying its place in my parents’ several homes in Johannesburg, always on that artefact dubbed “the coffee table.” There was also a wooden box holding cigarettes. The box had a tin intaglio copy of Rembrandt’s Night Watch on its lid, and so, true to the contiguities that free association loves, the lighter also makes me think of Rembrandt.

My father was to die of lung cancer twenty years later, but in the summer of 1962, smoking is glam. The time he is still at work and I run round and round the palm tree and step straight into a ground nest of bees, piercing the close, late afternoon air with my screams. My mother removes the sting with her eyebrow tweezers and rubs the swelling with honey. I feel cared for, administered to. When I write an email to my brother, Dan, about this day, which I know he remembers, he replies: “Your bee sting was recognised as being a national medical emergency on that day.”

Mummy has me sit on the deck chair on the balcony, my leg elevated and swathed in a turban of bandages, creating, if nothing else, an effect of analgesia. She brings me a tumbler of iced juice that I sip slowly, watching the darkening world go by in the space sliced by the balcony rails. I hear the clink-clink of ice in her glass and the clang of a whisky bottle and a quick blast of soda from the syphon, then a glug, and the clack of glass on table. She steps back onto the balcony, a cigarette held loosely in one manicured hand, the marine lighter in the other. Click click. Then click again. Though in his email, Dan has also written “that lighter never worked,” I clearly remember the flame flaring blue, illuminating my mother’s nose and mouth scarily. She takes a deep drag and then exhales a slow, steady stream of white. “You’ll be fine tomorrow,” she says.


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