“It began with a death in the family. My Uncle Ed, the most debonair of the clan, a popular guest of the Gentile social clubs despite being Jewish, had succumbed at age ninety-five with a half glass of Johnnie Walker on his bedside table.”
With that opening sentence, Alan Lightman (Einstein’s Dreams) invites us into his own remembrance of things past in his elegant memoir, Screening Room: Family Pictures. In episodic prose that shimmers with cinematic quality, Lightman recalls a time when aunts and uncles, cousins and siblings, parents and friends gathered in the Memphis moonlight to drink, talk in hushed tones about neighbors, sort out perplexing and slowly evolving attitudes about race and ponder the ragged ways people fall in love and out of it.
At the center of Lightman’s journey stands his grandfather, M.A. Lightman, who built a movie theater empire across the South, and whose presence and power haunted his family for generations. Not only does Alan Lightman’s father inherit the job of running a movie theater, he makes his son the assistant manager of the theater one summer; the young Lightman develops “a high-level expertise in making popcorn.” He sees two to three movies a week—“sometimes three movies in a single day”—and it’s then that he starts “seeing life as a series of scenes.”
The memorable scenes he brings us in Screening Room range from a wedding reception at the Peabody Hotel (where the famous ducks wouldn’t cooperate) to a 1960 meeting with Elvis (who attended private showings at M.A.’s personal theater). Lightman, who went on to become a theoretical physicist as well as a celebrated novelist, captures the South’s troubled racial history and offers poignant recollections of his family’s African-American housekeeper, Blanche.
He brings down the curtain with a wistful flourish: “I have found, and I have lost. . . . I have smelled the sweet honeysuckle of memory. It is all fabulous and heart-wrenching and vanished in an instant.”