She was a very pretty woman. She had dark red hair and her eyes – her eyes are just like mine, Harry thought, edging a little closer to the glass. Bright green -- exactly the same shape, but then he noticed that she was crying; smiling, but crying at the same time.
I reread the first book of the Harry Potter series last week. It’s been a long-long time since I first met The Boy Who Lived. I’ve been trying to remember exactly how old I was then, and I can’t put my finger on it. Young, incredibly young, is the answer that matters. Funny, because I do remember that when I first read it, on my sister’s recommendation, I had to tell myself that it was ok for the much older person that I was to read the children’s/young adult books. You know, because they are good, and they just happen to be being written when I was no longer a child or a young adult. It turns out the definition of “young” changes a lot as one ages. Go figure.
I first read the book in the American edition, but by then I already knew that Sorcerer’s Stone was the weak tea Americanization of the original British Philosopher’s Stone. I knew about Philosopher’s stone—learned about it from some adventure stories I read when I was actually a bonifide kid growing up in the Old Country. And I remember that the words sorcerer’s stone kept bugging me in the text, as did the references to soccer (because, you know, the rest of the world calls it football) and a few other things. I tell you this because this time I read it in the Old Country Language translation—we got it for Monkey, but as a responsible parent I had to check out the translation, don’t you think?
It’s a good translation, with less than a handful places where I thought the translator didn’t appreciate an idiom or a standard turn of phrase, and as a result, produced a clunky sentence that didn’t read like it belonged. I’ve forgotten some of the plot points, though they all came to mind easily at the first hint of each in the text. The cleverness of descriptions delighted me again. Uncle Vernon wishing hearing Harry’s name to be a figment of his imagination, despite usually wishing to stay far away from imagination and its figments—that made me laugh.
Monkey is eleven now, the age the protagonists are when the story starts. I realized, reading it this time, that when I first read the book, I imagined them younger. What I am saying is that I knew they were eleven, but my conception of what an eleven year old is was off. And this time the question my close friend raised some years back about whether Slytherin house and kids entering it are too easily stigmatized was close to my mind as I read.
I tell you all of this to emphasize that this time the reading of this book was a much richer experience for me. I knew the plot, but I was seeing it a little bit anew. Reading in a different language made it more of a 3D experience, if you will—it made the language stand as a bit of its own thing, in addition to the story. Reading this time was an experience joyful in a way that stretching is pleasurable after sitting too still for too long. I felt my brain delighting in the multifaceted work it was doing—the “oh, I remember why I like this” and the “yeah, still got it”-- much like I imagine a runner sidetracked by an injury might feel during the first run back, sensory memory of joy in the doing coming back alongside the here and now sensation of her muscles responding to the familiar challenges.
I was on the reader’s high, if you will. Which high carried me straight into a dark room with an ornate mirror resting on clawed feet.
The tall, thin, black-haired man standing next to her put his arm around her. He wore glasses, and his hair was very untidy. It stuck up at the back, just as Harry's did.
Mirror of Erised. I remember that when I first read the book I liked this mirror as a plot device a lot. I liked that Ron sees what he sees, and how Dumbledore uses the mirror in the end. I even remember being affected by the description of Harry looking at his family, and appreciating the extra punch the mirror packs precisely because Harry has never even seen a photograph of his parents before.
But this time there was something else. This time there was a hard gulp of knowing exactly why Lily Potter in the mirror is smiling, and why she is crying. Lily Potter got to do the one thing many of us have at least once said we would’ve liked to do—she got to trade her life for her child’s. Lily in the mirror is not real, but the mirror shows Harry how she would’ve reacted if she was. Lily in the mirror is not real, but to me she is recognizable.
Because I met my first son only after he was dead, much of what little that I know about him is about what he looked like. I know that my younger son has the same nose as A, for example. But my younger son’s face has changed so much over the years. I have to admit to myself that I have no idea what A would’ve looked like as a six year old.
Once Harry understands what he is looking at, he is searching the faces and figures of his family in the mirror, delighting in recognition. If I got a glimpse of A as a six year old, as an eleven year old… Even if it wasn’t real, I’d drink it in too.
On a related note (it’s related, I promise), if you’ve ever talked about the day your child was born dead or the day your child died as both a happy and a sad day, what reactions did you get? Because I think most people just don’t believe us when we say that. There’s the look of genuine incomprehension that people get. The look may be followed by kind words, the right words. Or it may be followed by a platter of platitudes. Or by nothing at all. And those reactions tell us a great deal about the people who utter them. But the first bit, the incomprehension, I’ve come to see it as a very honest and very human reaction—what people hear in the story is the death, the finality of it, the horror. And they get the sad day part. But I think it takes an extraordinarily wise soul to also get that the very finality of it takes away the luxury of separating the joy from the sorrow—this is the day, and this day is all we get. So we rejoice in the beauty of our children, in the family resemblances, in whatever little things we manage to carve out. Mostly, we rejoice in them having been here, in them being our children.
The Potters smiled and waved at Harry and he stared hungrily back at them, his hands pressed flat against the glass as though he was hoping to fall right through it and reach them. He had a powerful kind of ache inside him, half joy, half terrible sadness.
Erised is desire spelled backwards, as if read in a mirror. The mirror shows us the deepest, most desperate desire of our hearts. Lily and James and the rest of the Potters are in the mirror because Harry desperately wants to know them. The story of The Boy Who Lived inverts our stories. Or maybe I should say it reflects them. Harry doesn’t get to separate the joy from the sorrow either. With the mirror he has more than he’s ever had before—he can see where he came from, he can see that he was loved. And that is a lot, and it brings joy. But these people who loved him, they are still dead. In a weird way, because they are no longer abstract ideas of mom and dad, because now they are this mom with green eyes, and this dad with unruly hair, maybe they are actually a little more dead now. And no matter how many days or nights in a row Harry might’ve come to the mirror, the glass remains, fragile, but as always, impermeable. And the people who loved him remain dead.
And that recipe for a powerful kind of ache is just too familiar.
Have you ever encountered your grief reflected in an unexpected piece of art—a book, a movie, a play, a painting, a photograph? Or tell us what you think you would see in the Mirror of Erised.