I used to have a recurring dream years ago. It wasn’t quite recurring because I believe I only experienced the dream, in a couple of incarnations, two or three times. It is also unknown whether there was a measurable amount of time between the dreams; all I know is that out of all the strange dreams attached to my conscience this one is still with me in vivid recollection.
The dream starts somewhere in the basement of the house I grew up in. It is the normal arrangement I remember as a kid—short green shag carpet, cinderblocks painted white, a record player playing “Mama Told me not to Come” by Three Dog Night. In the back corner is the furnace and water-heater, and beyond that a little wooden door that leads to the crawlspace. There was an actual tombstone that we discovered as children under our house toward the dark shadows of this dirt and plastic cave, and as if in a strange nightmare already, we would take expeditions with nervous childhood friends to view it and ponder why it was there.
The dream guides me to this door, behind it anxiety and adventure, and the sensation is one of running away and escape. Someone, my sister Emily probably, is urging me on, and this prodding leads me to discover a trap-door just above the door to the crawlspace. I push through loose bricks and mortar and crawl up into a tunnel which quickly turns into a rickety flight of stairs. Following the stairs I am presented with a cavernous high-ceiling attic, also like the one in our house growing up except a number of times bigger with large windows on either end that channel in ample light.
The attic is full of crates and boxes, steamer trunks, furniture, standing-floor globes, mirrors, portraits and bookcases. Whoever was with me in the basement is no longer there, and I eventually open one of the trunks to examine its contents. In it are nautical charts, diaries and personal effects of an unknown ancestor. As I rifle through the artifacts I realize that all of the boxes and crates are full of such things—all there for my perusal. As my excitement builds I, annoyingly, wake up.
I’m almost convinced I dreamed this dream as a child and have kept it with me for the three decades since. If this is not the case, and how in the world will I ever know, I’m positive that it was many many years ago since I dreamed it last. I remember having similar dreams in my youth, ones that had to do with bottomless boxes of matchbox-cars or a daily allowance of a hundred bucks, but those dreams rarely connect to my point of view as an adult male going kicking-and-screaming into middle-age. This particular dream endures because it keeps recurring, not as I sleep, but while I’m wide-awake, as the strangest sensation of deja-vu that I know.
I started working at my college’s archives last August. The first order of business on that first day was a tour of the collection. At the end of the tour we ended up in the rare-books room, a locked-down receptacle of leather-bound volumes, minutes from forgotten meetings, portraits of prominent dignitaries and much of the things I feel comfortable around—namely, old stuff.
As we walked up the stairs and into the rare-books room the attic-dream swamped my recall. Here in the organized stacks of a southern collection of historical artifacts was my dream coming true, albeit in not as romantic terms as the reverie from my past. This isn’t the type of collection that contains buckets of musket balls or Great Uncle Wilson’s wooden leg, but the idea of things that people used, wrote, held all kept carefully in one place prompted a consideration of the prophetic nature of the attic-dream. It was a reversal of the sensation of deja-vu which says "I feel this has happened before but don’t know why." Instead, this sensation was saying, "I knew this was going to happen, the dream predicted it, and here it is."
Admittedly, many of the details between the dream and the experience in the rare-books room are divergent at best. The room has no windows. It has a low ceiling and things aren’t strewn around in dusty chaos like they are in the dream. It is a stretch to believe the dream to be a pinpoint prediction of a future moment in time, but rather a prediction of an eventual course in life, a discovery of a trapdoor perhaps.
Last weekend I was visiting my parents and had the chance to carefully examine the contents of my Grandfather’s steamer trunk. The trunk, lead-lined to prevent damage from moisture, is a record of a life from a very young man who fought in the trenches in France, Turkey and Palestine during the First World War through his career in the British Foreign Office and ending with a note to his daughter expressing his wishes that the contents be preserved for the posterity of the family only. His wishes were that the trunk would act as evidence, to tell a story in the way he would have told it had he the chance. There are important documents and certificates of merit, speeches and maps concerning world-events, and I feel I am doing no injustice to his wishes by relating these items only in the broadest of terms.
But below all of the evidence of permission into the halls of foreign-policy is a small notebook not 4” by 3” large. In it, written in pencil in neat sure hand, is his journal of the last year of the war. Everyday is represented, and the entries are short but telling. He had endured France (there is a map showing the stale-mate of the Western Front in all its bloody rigidness) and was now in Turkey. Casualties recorded time-saving brevity, the death of a fellow officer explained with no urgency but perhaps a heavier script, and details such as a tedious Christmas at the officer’s club or long marches with little water somehow reveal the character of this man I was never privileged to know.
While digging into his personal effects the attic-dream was definitely present. The steamer trunk was, as in the dream, full of maps influenced by the military movements of men. But another sensation prevailed over the first, one where my grandfather peered over my shoulder.
My grandfather was, to some acquaintances' recollection, a tempestuous bully at times. I can’t say—I never had the chance to experience this. Since my mother probably knew him best I can be sure, according to her accounts, he often betrayed an impatient nature, dressing down a young officer for returning his daughter home five minutes past her ten o’clock curfew. So as I carefully removed items from the trunk, it wasn’t necessarily as if a kindly old gent leaned forward to experience his grandson’s discoveries from a benevolent ethereal perch, but rather a red-faced product of the Empire leaning over my shoulder and shouting “for God’s sake, be careful you bloody fool!”
So this is why I like digging around in dead people’s things. Old photographs of people I never knew peering back at me lead me into the dangerous but fascinating practice of trying to identify their character. The diaries and letters certainly aid in this, and a trunkfull of personal effects is like having that person over without having to offer them a glass of wine or a snack. Thinking about it now, the attic-dream probably just reinforced my desire, made me realize what I enjoyed. Many people, and I know plenty of students who feel this way, would consider being trapped in an attic with dusty old “stuff” the worst nightmare imaginable. Not me, this is where I thrive.