Dwell Time: A Mem­oir of Art, Exile, and Repair

  • Review
By – October 9, 2023

In this beau­ti­ful mem­oir, Rosa Lowinger braids her Ashke­nazi fam­i­ly’s his­to­ry in Cuba with her per­son­al jour­ney, which includes her suc­cess­ful career as an art con­ser­va­tor. Born in Cuba in 1956, Lowinger immi­grat­ed with her fam­i­ly to the Unit­ed States in 1961 after they were forced to acknowl­edge the pre­vail­ing polit­i­cal winds. Lowinger had just turned four and, as she observes, was already an expert at man­ag­ing her moth­er’s extreme mood swings.

Her moth­er, Hil­da, was only three weeks old when her own moth­er died. She car­ried for her entire life the self-imposed guilt that her birth had caused her moth­er’s death. A cou­ple of years after her moth­er died, her father became ill, fell into alco­holism, and stopped work­ing. With no means to sup­port his young daugh­ter, Hil­da was shut­tled among her father’s rel­a­tives and final­ly sent to an orphan­age when she was four. 

Lowinger opens Dwell Time with a scene of five-year-old Hil­da scrub­bing mar­ble table­tops at her Jew­ish orphan­age in Havana. A beat lat­er, Lowinger links the mar­ble of Hilda’s hap­less child­hood with her own exper­tise as a clean­er of marble:

I am an art con­ser­va­tor spe­cial­iz­ing in sculp­ture, dec­o­ra­tive objects, and his­toric archi­tec­tur­al mate­ri­als. To me, it seems a strange lux­u­ry to use mar­ble for an orphan­age’s din­ing table.

For Lowinger, this his­to­ry is what gave birth to her moth­er’s insta­bil­i­ty and life­long abu­sive­ness. She lays out her tur­bu­lent child­hood in Mia­mi with blunt descrip­tions of her beat­ings and psy­cho­log­i­cal abuse. And yet Lowinger admirably per­sists in try­ing to under­stand the dam­age her moth­er inflict­ed on her. You can’t repair what you don’t com­pre­hend,” she explains.

Hilda’s excep­tion­al beau­ty caught Leonar­do Lindy” Lowinger’s eye and won his heart. The son of an enter­pris­ing Jew­ish immi­grant from Tran­syl­va­nia, Lindy’s infat­u­a­tion with Hil­da was unac­cept­able to the well-to-do Lowingers, and they sent their elder son to the Unit­ed States to for­get her. But Lindy’s attrac­tion to his strong-willed girl­friend sur­vived the sep­a­ra­tion and they were mar­ried soon after his return to Havana. 

Unlike her mother’s treat­ment of her, Lowinger’s con­ser­va­tion work is del­i­cate, born of patience and the desire to see some­thing made whole in a new way. Con­ser­va­tors, Lowinger writes, are mas­ters of the slow and steady, using only meth­ods and mate­ri­als with­out inflict­ing dam­age.” The patience required to con­serve a build­ing or piece of art is called dwell time.” 

Dwell time becomes an effec­tive metaphor through­out Lowinger’s account. She deploys the con­cept to describe her fam­i­ly await­ing an exit visa to Amer­i­ca, and the time she spends trav­el­ing. Lowinger also ties dwell time to how mate­ri­als and stand­ing build­ings are con­stant­ly chang­ing. Only the sto­ries attached to them are sta­ble, their mate­ri­als the words and phras­es of those narratives.” 

The vocab­u­lary of art con­ser­va­tion enrich­es Lowinger’s affect­ing mem­oir. At the begin­ning of her nar­ra­tive, she intro­duces kintsu­gi: a Japan­ese process of mend­ing breaks in ceram­ic pieces by glu­ing them and scat­ter­ing the cracks with gold dust. She is inter­est­ed in how kintsu­gi renews a work of art and rein­ter­prets its his­to­ry. She ends Dwell Time with yet anoth­er bril­liant insight based on this tech­nique, assert­ing that her trou­bled moth­er has enabled her to mend the fraught past of our fam­i­ly. The joins are vis­i­ble, but that’s the way I want them to remain, like Japan­ese kintsugi.” 

In Lowinger’s hands, dam­age trans­forms into art.

Judy Bolton-Fasman’s essays and reviews have appeared in major news­pa­pers includ­ing the New York Times and the Boston Globe. Her work has appeared in essay antholo­gies and lit­er­ary mag­a­zines such as McSweeney’s, Brevi­ty, Cat­a­pult, and Cognoscen­ti, She is the recip­i­ent of numer­ous writ­ing fel­low­ships and has won four Rock­ow­er Awards from the Amer­i­can Jew­ish Press Asso­ci­a­tion. Judy is the arts and cul­ture writer for Jew​ish​Boston​.com.

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