March 28, 2015
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My father took these photos of my mother, the left in 1963 at the Pantheon, in Rome, and the right in 1966, the location unidentified, but perhaps a zoo. There are a lot of photos like this in the scrapbook, Dorothy turned slightly toward the camera. He would have used a nickname to get her attention — not Red or Dottie, which other people used, but Schnutzie or some other made-up name.
Much as she loved her Chanel suit, my mother was happy to be released from the sensible squareness of the 1950s. It would be another ten or more years before she was willing to give up her girdle, but the ‘60s offered a more generous, and welcome, range of expression. She still (and always) dressed well, with care, and her style was far from zany, but she began to recognize and test the effect of colors and layers and odd accessories. Until late in her life, she was torn between the desire to be noticed and the persistent voice of her own mother’s warnings to be good, quiet, invisible.
July 28, 2013
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On the back of the photo, in neat handwriting that’s not my mother’s, it says Dave Lando, Dottie, May 5th, 1932. She’s 20, he’s — who knows? — a friend, a flame, a man upon whom she could lean for this moment of ease.
There are no photos of the man she would marry. All that survives of that liaison is her married name written on the cover of a sketch pad and a couple of pieces of wedding silver etched with her initials, D and A, flanking a large S.
But Dave Lando, whoever he may be, perhaps the Dave Lando who even then was studying to become a doctor, perhaps alive somewhere still, made the cut. If she looked at this photo and remembered that day, she never spoke of him. Perhaps she liked, as I do, her relaxed grace, her easy expression, the way he leans to support her as if he really likes her. Or maybe she liked, as I do, the faint ghost that surrounds their bodies, as if they were there and not there, still and moving, vibrating with youth, beauty, infatuation.
December 26, 2012
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Yesterday, looking at other people’s old Christmas photos — kids sitting in front of Christmas trees, at the hearth in front of an array of stockings — I checked for holiday photos of my own. I didn’t find any, but discovered, again, among albums-full of cousins and friends, many unidentified images from my parents’ past: a baby in a buggy, May 1923; the foal of the horse my mother owned with friends in the 1940s; a house, somewhere; a WWII soldier on a European street, another soldier’s shadow on the sidewalk.
What do I do with these old photos? No sibs, no kids, no one to tell me who or where, do I just throw them away? Submit them to some anonymous archive of lost history?
If I keep them long enough, will they become important to me? If I keep them long enough, will they become the illustrations, the inspiration, for stories, poems, yet waiting to be written?
August 17, 2012
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I love this photograph, carefully annotated in my mother’s script. It’s graduation day for Miss Rosenthal’s class at Hartford Avenue School, the names defining the generation: Mildred, Willard, Lenore, Gertrude, Rudy. (There’s also a Lolita, decades before Nabokov.)
The wind is blowing. Walter’s tie writhes free. Gordon presses one hand against his side, the other across his middle, to hold his jacket in place. Margaret Jones reaches up to pull hair out of her mouth. Everyone but Billy Owen is excited about the day, the photo, the milestone. Billy stands alone, scowling, at the left, instead of on the right, with the other boys. What was his story?
Years later, looking at the names on this picture, did Dorothy remember these people as friends? Did she laugh at Billy Owen or recall him with a pang of longing or regret? Did the memories of teasing fade? Did the ache of exclusion from the cliques diminish into nostalgia? Or were her classmates specimens, butterflies pinned with resentment to the map of her past?…
March 8, 2012
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I keep looking at this picture of my mother as if I might discover hidden answers within it. On the back, in my father’s neat printing, is written Chenenceaux 9/66. It’s impossible to know whether Dorothy is moving toward the castle or away, but she’s walking away from my father, alone in the tunnel of trees, head down, dressed in her traveling suit — jacket, skirt, stockings, sensible low heels — a remnant of the ’50s that would soon give way.
Maybe she was even wearing a girdle and feeling the constraint of her narrow clothing. Perhaps she was looking for the perfect leaf among those early harbingers of autumn, or thinking about the colors she’ll use when she finally reaches a bench and can pull the pencils and little sketch pad from the purse that hangs over her arm. Maybe she’s formulating what she’ll say about this place, these trees, this trip to France, or feeling an ache of disappointment at finding herself so alone.
In some way, this was always the mother I knew: turned away, just beyond reach, alone in the very center of the picture.
August 26, 2011
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Every few months I pull the photo albums off the shelf, dust the covers and peer inside with a magnifying glass as if the secret formula of my life might be deciphered from their contents. Bound in leather-textured black paper with black, crumbling pages, they are filled with carefully-glued, fading, unidentified photos.
This is my mother’s family, a sprawling gaggle of aunts, uncles and cousins who enjoyed enough leisure to travel by car to distant lakes and national parks populated with bears and waterfalls, to get together and ham it up in front of a camera and to attend large costume parties that featured a lot of cross-dressing.
I recognize my mother and grandparents in some of the pictures, the occasional uncle or aunt. But mostly these are strangers, their images receding in the aging photographs, with no one left to tell me who the people are, what became of them or what they saw or did that left my mother so profoundly wounded.