Throughout my career, I have always kept one object on my desk.  It is a rectangular glass paperweight with a photograph mounted within it depicting a balconied resort building in Southern Ontario with scores of figures dressed in keeping with styles prevalent around 1900.  There had been some writing on the back, but time and cleaning have faded or removed it.  It came into my possession when I was 12.  But there is a story behind this little object and here it is. 

The Paperweight on my Desk 

When my father first came to Canada he stayed with a landlady and her husband in Hamilton for a month or so before my mother, sister and I joined him from England.  His landlady was a strong-willed woman whose husband Alec was a small and wiry Scotsman who had fought in the trenches during WWI but submitted to his wife in peacetime.  He loved a drink and always ensured that I was given alcohol during visits even though I was well underage.  He connected with my father through mutual respect and though ex-army forgave him for serving in the Royal Navy.  His wife outlived him and having not heard from her for some time after Alec’s death, she contacted my father to ask for a favour which was to drive her out to see a property that she had just purchased as an investment.   

We arrived there to find a very small, scantily furnished and rather run-down cottage inhabited by an old gentleman in his nineties.  She had apparently purchased the cottage as well as the contents and the old gentleman was about to move into a home but had not yet left.  As she walked around inspecting her new possession, I was left with the previous owner who engaged me in conversation and told me a little about his life.  Towards the end of the visit, he picked up the paperweight and told me that it was a souvenir that he had kept from his honeymoon with his now-deceased wife and that it contained a picture of where they had stayed.  He pressed it in my hand and said that he would like me to have it to remember him by. 

We left and got into the car and drove away.  I remember being saddened by the experience as it felt as if the man was about to leave on a trip that he would not return from.  It seemed that he was at his end,  knew it and was only barely existing in the present.  It was as if the undertow of his past memories overpowered him.   Like an exhausted swimmer, he had resigned himself to the inevitable not in fear but in the prospect of peace.  When he pressed it into my hand and clenched it, it was a final goodbye and understood to be such.   But it was more and somehow as if old age and youth were connected by a bond of continuity from one to the other as if the paperweight was more a torch than a little piece of glass. 

We left and I later learned that the new owner had been very upset that he had given this item to me as she felt that it and the rest of the contents no longer belonged to him.  My father never felt the same towards her afterwards and I never forgot the combination of human warmth and human pettiness that the paperweight took on as a meaning. 

I have often looked at the photograph encased in glass and studied the many figures standing out in their fashionable dress on that summer day frozen in time.  It is almost as if they are still alive in there looking back out through a glass window.  I almost expect them to move.  One flash in time and one point of existence of many dots along a continuum but one point that has been preserved. 

This object has remained to me a reminder not only of the transitory nature of time and the fleeting nature of human existence when looked at through our own rear-view mirrors, but also the stark contrast between human pettiness and human warmth.  Like those little figures frozen in time for one moment of their existence, that old man and his memories as he passed that little object to me has also been frozen in time.  His intention was realized as I have remembered him ever since.  Indeed, it recently occurred to me that it was important that I write this down so that when this same glass window into the human soul leaves my possession, its story will not be lost.  Perhaps that point in time can be preserved a bit longer together with that little encased point in time on my desk.