Thursday, December 25, 2008

Our family snapshots are myriad. But, alas, we have been poor stewards of them. Sure, a few are in photo albums. But most of them (my guess is 600 or more) lie unceremoniously crammed into a large, blue Tupperware box. And there they sit, a photo-chronological scramble, frozen moments in time, a life’s cast of characters tossed in a tumble like old dolls in a box.

I know better than to go near this crypt. But the box was off its perch on the office shelf last night, and needed putting up. Bad move. I began picking through its contents and before I knew it, the inert gas of nostalgia was in my nostrils, controlling my brain.

There were the “slide” years. I took transparencies in the early 70’s. Soon, I tired of holding these up to the ceiling light. The projector broke years ago. Then there were the black and white years. In the mid to late 70’s I worked for newspapers and developed my own. I was never without the Nikkormat 35 mm or the big Bronica SLR large format. (what ever happened to that camera?). I always had an unlimited supply of Tri-X 400 ASA b&w on hand. Those were the days before digital cameras and auto settings when I could still think in F-stops and shutter speeds.

Most numerous were the color photographs of the kids growing up. But what kept me in brain freeze mode the longest were the old monochromes and sepias I inherited after my father died.

I saw an oval picture of my grandmother. She was in her 20’s and a very pretty woman. Her hair was in a bun and her eyes were clear and wide. She had a slight smile that rivaled the Mona Lisa’s for mystery. She was newly married, I suspect to a man she barely knew. Her expression said she was in a new place where she was not entirely comfortable and knew a secret about her feelings she would not tell.

Growing up, I often stayed with her for weeks at a time. I watched her lug bushels of apples from a dark cellar, peel each one and then cook them into apple butter in a large iron pot. One day I went with her to feed chickens and discovered that one of the birds was doomed. She gripped the unsuspecting hen and with a quick cranking motion of her bony hand, broke its neck. This violence from such a sweet lady seemed incongruous but somehow was normal on the farm. She cut off the chicken’s head with a butcher knife. I watched the headless fowl attempt to stand until, in a few seconds, it went limp. We called my grandmother “Granny”.

Another unframed snapshot was that of my grandfather on Mother’s side. He sat, unsmiling, dressed in his farmer overalls, in a rocking chair on the front porch. “Po”, as we called him, was not a religious man. But he knew his bible, even though he would be the first to admit to not living by its principles. I think it was his refusal to swallow the pabulum of the preachers that later caused most of his children to search for truth. One day, when I was 9 years old, let me tag along with him on the farm. He sharpened a hatchet on a foot-powered grindstone. Then he led me into a thicket of cedar saplings and selected just the right one. He cut it down and shaped it into a very functional bow. He notched it, strung it and taught me how to shoot it. I never forgot that. When my son was nine years old, I repeated the ritual, all the while, thinking of the man we called “Po” who died when I was 11.

Other old photos surfaced like nuggets in a miner's pan. One was a 1939 picture of my mother and father, young and in love. Dad was rakishly handsome and my mother was, as kids today say, a real hottie. It was the pre-war days of Benny Goodman swing and jitterbug. He was cutting timber and she, well, she lived near the stand of trees. I stared at the picture a long time, wondering what it would have been like to know them and be the same age. Would we hang out? Or would they think we were stuffy and un-cool.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'll never forget the Thanksgiving when I learned that Granny didn't eat turkey.

Summer vacations were the only time I had with her. My Dad always took a week each summer to drive our family from Newport News, Virginia, to Jonesville for a visit.

Growing up I assumed that during spring, fall, and winter Granny & Po celebrated holidays just as we did back east.

In my early 20's when I was a fairly new spontaneous bride, Nicky (my former spouse...did I mention spontaneous?) and I decided to surprise Granny with a Thanksgiving visit. We planned to drive out a few days early, purchase a turkey with all the trimmings, and prepare a great feast for her.

Much to our surprise, I learned that Granny had ringed so many turkeys' necks back on the farm that she didn't eat turkey.

That year we were very thankful for spagetti.