The Gramophone

image of Timmy, 706 S.E. 14th Street, Portland, Oregon, early 1950’s

Timmy, 706 S.E. 14th Street, Portland, Oregon, early 1950’s 

A vivid memory haunts me, in sight, sound, smell and mystery that no one has ever been able to corroborate because I was all by myself at the time. Was it a dream? Did my mind synthesize it from real bits and pieces? I was about three years old, recently transplanted from Massachusetts to Portland, Oregon. It was in Gramma Grace’s old house on the East Side, and perhaps her momma was still living there too, Helen Delight Johnson.

I went up the dark narrow stairway to the attic and opened the door. Old dusty furniture, leather suitcases and wooden trunks with metal hasps, a tall floor lamp that towered over me, some broken chairs, a heavy bookcase partly full… I had seen this intriguing place before – with Mom or Gramma – but never alone, free to indulge my curiosity. I went in and quietly closed the door.

The item that drew my greatest attention was a beautiful wooden box at about my eye level on a little table with simply carved wooden legs. The box was varnished and glowing even though untouched by a feather duster for who knows how long – and crowned by a thrilling brass horn much bigger than my head. It was a hand-crank gramophone. And it had a record on it. I had seen it operate and knew what to do. I turned the crank, first the wrong way, which offered no resistance, then the right way, which clearly felt like work was being done as a ratchet clicked inside. After a few turns I slid a small stool up close and climbed onto it while holding the machine with both hands for stability. Now I could see the mechanism from above and find the play lever. The record began to spin. My excitement spun with it. I lifted the tone arm and set the needle down on the disk. It was a clumsy move but it got the job done; sound came from the big horn, soft crooning music, sad, a man’s voice with piano. I was enchanted.

image of a gramophone

The music played, I climbed down off the stool, time seemed to stop. A heady aroma-cocktail filled the air with notes of warm wood and cloth dust and blossoms that beckoned my nose as a strong sweet musty intoxicant. I looked to the light coming in the window, then went to it and saw how it was propped open enough to admit the afternoon up-draft from fruit trees below. Apricot, apple, plum. I gazed down, breathed deeply, listened to the magic, swam in peaceful happiness. If I had died then and there it would have been a full life. Strange to think a thought like that, some 64 years later.

As the main spring ran down, the music executed a poco a poco ritardando until it stopped. I willed the moment to last a little more and committed it to my permanent memory, somehow knowing how special it was and always would be. My chest heaved like the beginning of a whimper at the mourning of something forever lost. Then I took a final look around, opened the door, and walked down into my future.

To this day, the smell of certain tree blossoms transports me back to that attic. Especially the apricot in our San Juan Bautista, California, front yard.

~ T

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