When’s the last time you washed your hands in a bathroom sink without looking up to check your appearance in the mirror? I’ll tell you when: Never. Don’t be ashamed. It’s just a reflex.

Well, I was in a friend’s powder room washing my hands recently and when I looked up to check my appearance I found myself face-to-face with one of her treasured family photos. Seems the previous owners had taken the bathroom mirror when they left and she hadn’t yet gotten around to replacing it yet, but until she did, well, the sepia tones of her grandfather’s photograph fit right in with the color scheme. Seemed like an obvious solution.

But this was not just any family photograph. It was a photograph of her grandfather in medical school, circa 1890. Grandpa and his classmates in shirtsleeves, vests, and the occasional jaunty hat, gathered around a long table, earnestly examining a corpse.

Yes, I said a corpse. Look up from my friend’s powder room sink and you are eye-level with a late 19th century dead person. That’s a horrifying thing to see when all you’re trying to do is check for spinach in your teeth. (Appropriately enough, Grandpa became a dentist.)

My close encounter with the Anatomy class got me thinking about the element of surprise, and how it can enliven writing. As in this masterful lede by film critic Anthony Lane in the May 26, 2014 issue of The New Yorker:

“Wrinkled and crinkled, huge in Japan, heroically reluctant to give up, and forever touring the world on a mission to make us scream, Godzilla is the Mick Jagger of giant amphibians.”

Whether it’s a memento mori instead of a mirror or Mick Jagger bursting into a sentence we expect to be about Godzilla, surprises can startle or amuse – but they always make us think. And an audience that thinks is an audience that will remember.

I’m not likely to forget my visit to my friend’s powder room. And I won’t forget her upcoming birthday either; I’ll be giving her a bathroom mirror.

  • storytelling
  • writing