"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
I don’t usually regret the fact that my children are growing up. I enjoy who they are now too much to spend much time brooding about who they used to be. But this fall my son left home to go to college, and my daughter turned 11. When you go down to dinner and there are only three people sitting at the table instead of four, you notice. And as I was putting some of my daughter’s stuffed animals in storage the other day, I started thinking about childhood’s end — theirs, and my own.
Zachary’s departure has made me even more acutely aware of how close Celeste is to the edge. There’s no bright line marking the moment when someone ceases to be a child, but she’s definitely getting close. She hasn’t abandoned her childish loves: She still plays with her American Girl dolls and devours books about clans of warrior cats and watches “SpongeBob Squarepants.”
She may even still believe in Santa Claus, although that’s getting shaky.
The other day as we were walking down the street, she asked me, not for the first time, if Santa Claus was real. I was tempted to tell her the truth. I’m not sure that it would be that traumatic a revelation — most of her peers have been apostates for ages. But my wife and I have an agreement not to toss Saint Nick into the Easter Bunny bin until Celeste herself does. So I said yes, Santa is real. But this year, Celeste followed up by asking pointedly why no one ever sees him, and then volunteered that it’s because he’s magic.
Once they start having to come up with these kind of creationist explanations, it’s all over. I’d say that ornament is hanging from the tree by a very frayed thread.
Childhood is like the punctuated equilibrium theory of evolution. You go along for eons, and then one day this large new creature is in your house, drinking wine, buying condoms and kicking your ass in basketball. The changes are happening all the time and you just fail to notice them. I feel like I practically missed Zachary becoming an adult. I spent the last four years being a standard middle-aged zombie, shuffling to work and driving kids to soccer practice and waiting for the cocktail hour. They passed in an instant. But they were his high school years, blazoned and painful and wondrous.
Celeste is in one of those bursts now. It’s the exploding brain show. Entirely new areas of her mind are blossoming, and you can see the still-coalescing outlines of her grown-up personality start to come into view, like a mask emerging in a vat of molten bronze. A month ago she began to patiently explain to me how to count dotted half-notes, and this is the last year I’ll be able to even pretend to understand her math problems. It’s only a matter of time before I’ll be asking her for help with my homework. Strange new adult concepts like self-consciousness and politeness have begun to make their appearance. (Is there anything more bittersweet than the first time your formerly feral child does something genuinely polite? That moment marks the real end of innocence.) Looking at the different spot where we’re going to put our Christmas tree this morning, Celeste said, “That’s much better. There will be more room for presents!” Then, looking at me with a knowing little smile, she said archly, “Because for us kids, it’s all about the presents.”
That little moment of fledgling self-awareness reminded me of that shot in “2001: A Space Odyssey” when the ape-man throws the club exultantly into the air and it turns into a space shuttle. I close my eyes, and a wry comment from a little girl unfolds into a vision of a woman with a grown-up brain and a grown-up heart, laughing ironically at herself in a cafe.
But best of all are the conversations — as in, we can actually have them now. I yield to no one in my goo-gooing over 4-year-old cuteness, but if I had a dollar for every time I’ve completely tuned out one of Celeste’s monologues about the plot of some cartoon she just watched, I’d be rich. I have a Ph.D. in pretending to pay attention. But now every day I can hit the verbal ball over the net a little harder to her — and sometimes she whacks one right past me. The game is on, and it’ll last a lifetime.
Being a parent is all about loving a moving target — it doesn’t work to get fixated on changes, because if you do that, you’ll miss the miraculous present. But I still confess to sometimes feeling a little melancholy these days, as we live out these last years of dolls and silly stories and big eyes full of everything and nothing.
Some of my regret is — how shall I put this delicately — vampiric. As I’ve begun crumbling into more or less picturesque, Transylvania-like ruins, I’m naturally drawn to the figure that leaps lightly over the fallen columns. She’s young, I think as I sit creakily up in my earth-filled coffin. She’s full of life. Surely she won’t miss it if I siphon a little bit off. Hell, I’ve been doing it ever since she was born — she ought to be used to it by now.
You can put down the phone to Child Protective Services. I’m no Charles Dodgson — if the author of “Alice in Wonderland” really was “Lewis Carroll Carroll,” the epithet with which Vlad Nabokov, creator of Humbert Humbert, impaled him. I’m not a bloodsucker. I don’t want to freeze Celeste at age 9. But these days, I can’t shake off the feeling Carroll evoked in his famous lines: “Still she haunts me, phantomwise, Alice moving under skies/ Never seen by waking eyes.” The feeling that a world is leaving me, and I need to stop and look at it before it goes.
I’m going against the grain. Some kinds of love swim against the current of time, some kinds float with it. In “To His Coy Mistress,” the 17th century metaphysical poet Andrew Marvell famously paints time as the enemy of romantic love. “Had we but world enough, and time, This coyness, lady, were no crime,” he begins, before going on to muse how if they were lucky enough to live in such a timeless state, his “vegetable love” should grow “vaster than empires.” Alas, he and his would-be love exist in the sublunary sphere, and “at my back I always hear/ Time’s winged chariot hurrying near.” Warning his beloved that if she continues to resist him she’ll end up in the grave, he enjoins, “Now let us sport us while we may;/ And now, like am’rous birds of prey,/ Rather at once our time devour,/ Than languish in his slow-chapp’d power.” The poet concludes by celebrating a love that lives and dies in an explosion of fireworks: “Thus, though we cannot make our sun/ Stand still, yet we will make him run.”
But that’s erotic love. The love of a parent for a child doesn’t fight time, but keeps pace with it — languishes in its slow-chapp’d power, if you will. Parental affection is the “vegetable love” that Marvell so weirdly invokes. There is no contest, no victory, no fading beauty, no waning of the “willing soul’s” “instant fires.” You start out where you end up. You’re in it for the long haul. Parental love is love’s tortoise — and if we are to judge by what happens to most marriages, the fable has it right: The tortoise wins. The crawling sun beats the sprinting one.
Yet it’s good to break out of the zucchini patch every now and then to feel the pangs of fatalism. It’s worth it to take in your child’s life as if it were fixed, to remember their childhood as if it would never come again, as if there was no tomorrow, as if you really don’t have world enough, and time. Because you don’t.
When you freeze the moment, when you place your child in a picture frame, when you remember, you open yourself to the sadness of time. Paradoxically, utter stillness starts the clock ticking; a vivid memory makes you aware that the sun is running toward a finish line. This paradox was brilliantly explored by the French semiotician Roland Barthes in his book about photography, “Camera Lucida”: The uncanniness of photography is its simultaneous evocation of presence and loss. A memory is a kind of photograph, developed on the human nerves.
Today my memory was triggered by a trinket — a bib with a koala on it that hangs in my garage. Thinking of it, the strangeness of life overwhelms me: How did we get from that bib to here?
The impending end of Celeste’s childhood touches me because it reminds me of other endings, ones none of us can escape. It touches me because it’s the last personal encounter with childhood I’m likely to have. It touches me because the Celeste I loved for all those years is changing before my eyes.
And in the end, I realize, it’s really not about her at all. She’ll still be Celeste, but will I still be me?
My sadness at the end of her childhood is really sadness at the end of my childhood, the wondrous second childhood she brought me. It’s coming to an end. No more pushing the swing, and throwing her on the bed, and telling endless stories. No more being a protector, a provider, an everything. No more being special without having to do anything. No more magic. No more mystery. No more of the great adventure.
Ever since Celeste was born, I’ve watched her, thinking that if I paid enough attention, I could bottle those years. I was wrong: I paid attention, but the time flowed through my fingers and spilled onto the floor. Now it’s gone.
But I didn’t understand. The gift I was given was not all those moments that have passed, nor all those memories I’ve lost. The gift was learning how to love.
I have a bottle of the finest wine. It was given to me 11 years ago. It has every flavor in the world in it — rose and peach and blackberry and cherry and all the others under the running sun. It’s Christmas time, and I would like to propose a toast: To you, my daughter, who gave me everything.
Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.More Gary Kamiya.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)