My favorite movie is probably “Somewhere in Time”, which appeared in 1980. It starred Christopher Reeve, Jane Seymour, and Christopher Plummer. A number of people who have seen the movie have told me that its beautiful theme song, Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini Op. 43, Variation 18, has brought them to tears. I think there is a reason why so many people are deeply moved by the story, so strikingly captured in the theme song.
Briefly, the story is about a poet named Richard Collier who, in 1980, discovers a photograph of a young woman at a hotel where he is staying. Captivated and finally obsessed by her image, he learns that the likeness is that of the once-famous actress Elise McKenna, and was taken in 1912. Collier refuses to accept the obvious fact that she is dead and unobtainable, and eventually discovers a way to forsake his present utterly and go back to 1912 to meet her and eventually win her love. I will write no more about the plot so as not to provide any spoilers—other than to say that it is not a typical love story.
It is a story of the pursuit of love for something “out of this world” but which has left in the world signs that beguile, entrance, and ultimately change the dedicated searcher for love. To win that love, the searcher must forsake everything he owns. With total dedication, then, even time itself yields its inviolable boundaries, boundaries that are yet permeable by human desire and longing and eventual consummation. This is how I long for Jesus.
Not long ago I learned that the movie was based on a novel named Bid Time Return, written in 1975 by Richard Matheson. I found a copy of the book and saw that the author had taken the title from Shakespeare’s Richard II, Act III. Scene 2: “O call back yesterday, bid time return.” The verse is quoted on a flyleaf of the book. I read the book last week and found myself moved deeply, even more than when I saw the movie.
Ultimately, even the best of earthly loves is never satisfied, can never be satisfied, in this world. Either everything we love we eventually lose, or the love cannot be completed or truly consummated. We cannot “have our cake and eat it too.” Cake is made to be eaten, but in the eating we lose it. If we refuse to eat it so we can admire it, it does not serve its primary purpose, and thus we fail truly and fully to enjoy it. Every living thing we love, plant, animal, or human, we lose as it ages and as we age. Genuine love, therefore, is always for something outside this world, and every earthly love points through the beloved to something greater and unobtainable by our own efforts and desires.
Throughout my life the acknowledgment of this truth has colored my affections and my sense of self. The theme of lost or impossible loves which are nonetheless real and all-consuming has impacted and shaped me. That “shaping” has led me to understand something about love and grief and loss that, perhaps, is uncommon. Or perhaps quite common indeed, but rarely understood in the rich combination where both love and loss complement and empower each other.
Just a year or so ago I heard for the first time an old song about that very thing. The song is called “Once Upon a Time”. I first heard it sung by Perry Como. One can hear that version here. It begins after a brief introduction. There is an instrumental with a beautiful slide show here.
Some of the words to the song are:
Once upon a time, a girl with moonlight in her eyes
Put her hand in mine and said she loved me so,
But that was once upon a time,
Very long ago.
Once upon a hill, we sat beneath a willow tree,
Counting all the stars and waiting for the dawn.
But that was once upon a time.
Now the tree is gone.
Surely just about everyone of a certain age can testify to the poignancy of these lyrics. We human beings were created to live in eternity, but, because of our exile from God’s immediate presence, we live in time. Still, we somehow remember the heights from which we have fallen and long intensely for what has been lost. Therefore we shall always have some measure of futility and disappointment about our lives, for they are filled with transitory things. Fallen human beings best enjoy that scent of eternity when we learn to accept transitoriness as a quality of even the best earthly things, and give thanks to God for them as is, realizing that ultimately all things point to him. “All things come from you, O Lord” (1 Chronicles 29:14b).
C. S. Lewis, in his book Out of the Silent Planet, addresses this longing for eternity while living in time when one of his characters says, “How could we endure to live and let time pass if we were always crying for one day or one year to come back—if we did not know that every day in a life fills the whole life with expectation and memory, and that these are that day?”
In an argument with Jewish leaders, Jesus said, “My testimony is true, for I know where I came from and where I am going, but you do not know where I come from or where I am going. … I am going away, and you will seek me, and you will die in your sin. Where I am going, you cannot come. …You are of this world; I am not of this world” (John 8:14b, 21, 23b). Though the debate is about the trustworthiness of Jesus’ authority to teach, these quoted words inside Jesus’ comments show that Jesus is the only One who is really the Lover both within and beyond the world, inside of and outside of time. “You will seek me,” he said, but we are of one world (which is fallen) and he is of another (which is perfect), and between the two, “a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us” (Luke 16:26).
Only divine love can bridge that chasm. Jesus said to his disciples at the Last Supper, the event that marked the end of their earthly companionship, “In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. And you know the way to where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:2-6).
To me, Richard Matheson’s story in both film and print sets forth this teaching in mythic form. It is a story about an inspirational love with a powerful emotional impact. It is about human beings who meet and love across an impassible barrier; and thus, even time itself must relax its inviolable, implacable one-way movement for the sake of love. This human love, mortal as it is, points to the ineffable and foundational true love whose strength broke another inviolable, implacable force in nature: death—since the Lover broke the bonds of death with his resurrection.
The setting of the love between Richard Collier and Elise McKenna is a great hotel with many decades of history. In the movie, it is The Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island in Michigan.
In the book it is The Hotel del Coronado in Coronado, California, shown here as it was in 1900.
Both sprawling, luxurious, and historical hotels are immersed in time but point beyond it. By their existence, they suggest that they are places where love lasts forever, and where love is all that is known. They are both grand places of “many rooms” and long history, where time lies in multitudinous layers.
“And love most sweet.” The title of this blogpost comes from the inscription on a gold pocket watch that Elise gives to Richard in the book as a sign of her love for him. She tells Richard that it is a line from a poem by Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of the Christian Science religion. Richard recognizes that Elise has remembered the line incorrectly, but he doesn’t tell her (of course), and he resolves not to tell her how the poem ends. I looked it up, however, and here is the last stanza of the poem “Love”, by Mary Baker Eddy:
Thou to whose power our hope we give,
Free us from human strife.
Fed by Thy love divine we live,
For Love alone is Life;
And life most sweet, as heart to heart
Speaks kindly when we meet and part.
In both movie and book, the watch plays a small but significant part in the love between Richard and Elise.
Well, it is only a story, though it sets forth the power of longing and love. The astonishing discovery I made on January 27, after I had finished reading the book is that the character of Elise McKenna was based on a real person, whose life story strongly parallels the fictional account. Most important of all, there is a real photograph behind the account of Richard Collier’s obsession.
I learned that Matheson was visiting a lodge or hotel or museum (I’ve forgotten which now) and saw a photograph of Maude Adams, an actress who was at the height of her career at the turn of the twentieth century. Her photograph inspired the book, which led to the movie. I suspect that it is no coincidence that the author of the story, Richard Matheson, has the same first name as the story’s protagonist, Richard Collier. Maude Adams’ life provided the pattern for Elise McKenna’s life in the story. Moreover, even Maude Adams’ manager provided the pattern for the fictional manager of Elise McKenna. Details of both lives are preserved in the fictional account. For example, in both real and fictional life, the actress had the lead role in the play, “The Little Minister”, by John Barrie. It is in that setting that Richard Collier meets Elise.
Maude Adams was born Mormon but apparently never practiced that religion. As an adult she became enamored of the Catholic Church, although I have found no information about whether she ever formally became a Christian. She was dedicated, however, to philanthropy, and did many works of mercy through her work and financial gifts. She made frequent retreats at Catholic retreat centers, and donated one of her homes to Catholic Sisters for a retreat center and novitiate. She died at the age of 80 in 1953, and is buried on the grounds of the estate she had donated to the Sisters. Her life span crossed mine for five years.
Here is the photograph that captivated Richard Matheson. It was taken in 1892, when she was 19. Her eyes look to us across nearly 120 years. Somewhere in time. Somewhere in eternity.