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Mr Popper & Myself

D and Mr PopperMy mother is perhaps 13 in this small photo. It’s the mid-1920s and she’s looking a little flapperish.

On the back of the photo is written, “To Dorothy From Margaret West.” Perhaps on this spring day in Milwaukee Margaret and Dorothy dressed up and went to a party, or the silent pictures. On the way home they encountered the local constabulary, Mr. Popper, and Dorothy asked Margaret to take her photo. The ever-accommodating Mr. Popper is mildly amused.

Dorothy is holding a newspaper, part hanging down and part flipped up across her chest. Maybe there’s something noteworthy in the paper — something about Dorothy herself, or her school, or her father.

Or perhaps there’s no story, just a record of a moment when a girl shows a new composure, a new self-awareness, when grooming is not simply a matter of complying with Mother’s instructions, but a tiny and newly discovered window into self-expression.

seen and unseen

at 3 mos - jik-DAK-LRKI like this photograph. I like that it contains a little puzzle, though it took me a long time to recognize it.

That’s me, at about three months, looking skinny and serious in my mother’s hands, and that’s my father with the camera. He’s smiling and focused on me, I’m not smiling and looking back at him, and Dorothy is flirting with the person taking this photo, whose identity will forever remain a mystery.

This is a red-carpet moment for Dorothy. She is apparently (or at least momentarily) recovered from the ordeals of pregnancy and childbirth, she looks stylish and happy, and under the gaze of two cameras, she’s aglow with attention.

San Diego, 1970

1970 - DAK San DiegoMy father unseen, on a balcony perhaps, raises the camera to include the duck drifting out of the frame, and my mother, on the dock below, who has been enjoying the lily pads near her feet. At his request, she has taken off her hat, which is in her lap, and her sunglasses, which dangle from her left hand. She smiles, starts to turn toward his voice, and he catches her with her eyes closed.

There’s room for him on the seat and maybe he’ll join her, or maybe she’ll pick up a pad and sketch a bit. They’ll go for a walk. They’ll stroll up and down the docks looking at the boats, which my father loves, although he’s never owned a boat and never spent much time on the water.

They’ll eat lunch at a place with a view of the bay and go to the zoo, where he’ll take photos of a zebra and a hippo. They’ll go back to their room and read a little, and nap, and then have a glass of wine on their balcony overlooking the water, and then go to dinner, and then walk wherever it is people walk on these warm summer evenings.

Maybe they talk about the space race, the war in Vietnam, the recent invasion of Cambodia or the four students killed at Kent State. Maybe not. Maybe they speculate about the lives of people around them or comment on the play of color on the water.

Maybe none of this happens except the duck and the dock and the zebra and the hippo, which I know because of the photos — the tenuous armature of a story that can be told in so many ways.

rewrite

1940s Dorothy in foxIt’s impossible to know if Dorothy was posing and happened to be caught mid-blink or if she was resting, eyes closed. She’s in her 30s, at the height of her glamour, and her expression shows contentment and the pleasure of knowing she is admired. I imagine her dressing with great care and attention, putting on bracelet, high heels, lipstick and jacket in readiness for some celebration.

The Doberman is unfamiliar; I never heard Dorothy mention the dog, though it appears in several photos from this period. Perhaps it belongs to the person who has been tending the grass and the potted plants. Or the person who is taking the photo.

The picture isn’t perfect. My grandmother’s shadow hovers in the foreground, where it would remain, literally or figuratively, for the rest of my mother’s life. And someone has thoughtlessly left a sack of cow manure next to the garage.

But we can fix that. Tell the story any way we want. My mother did. Airbrushed the scars from her story. She might have preferred it this way:
1940s Dorothy in fox, version 2By the time she was my mother, Dorothy had abandoned, with lingering regret, the glamorous life she had known. She inhabited her new persona: artist, wife, intellectual. (Mother.) The fox jacket (previously mentioned here and here) was permanently abandoned to the closet.

She never sat in the sun though she was always cold, longing for the warmth of a forbidden love, for the heat of admiration.

to create…

photo…

Dorothy in ChenenceauxI 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.

old photos…

old family photoEvery 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.

deciphering Dorothy…

winter 1940sWith my magnifying glass, I gaze into the past, trying to turn the small photograph into a crystal ball.

It’s a sunny winter day, perhaps in Milwaukee. She’s seated carefully, right on the edge of a large suitcase. Her lover is standing behind her at her right, a heavy, fleece-lined coat draped over his arm, bow-tie, v-necked cashmere sweater, hat, glasses, smile. His father stands at her left, suede jacket, gloves, light-colored hat with a wide, dark band. They’re both pressing in toward her.

A scooped, netted hat is angled dramatically over her forehead, shading one eye, her hair full and dark behind her ears. Earrings are bright spots, exclamation points, to the left and right of her radiant, lipsticked smile. She’s wearing a luscious fox fur jacket, shoulders padded and square. Her light, narrow skirt is drawn up a bit to show her knees and on her lap one black suede glove clutches her black purse. Her left hand is raised a few inches off her lap, her arm tucked between her body and the older man’s; maybe he was holding her elbow to steady her on the precarious seat.

Her stockinged legs are angled, glamorous, one foot slightly behind the other, high black heels on her feet. A dark hatbox sits on the ground nearby. The photographer’s shadow falls on the man’s legs, which only seems to highlight the bright sleekness of her own. Is she arriving? Are they departing? She has known these men all her life; what is being celebrated in the photograph?

Sometime later, their two families separated the lovers. But I can see that in this pinnacle moment she feels beautiful and loved, elegant and desirable. And for all the rest of her life she would try to find that smiling woman, lean toward the memory, glinting in her past, a lost jewel.

honeymoon…

honeymoonThe funny little clear plastic stand on my father’s bureau held a black and white photo of my parents, trimmed in a circle to fit between two small discs of glass. They’re looking into the bright December Death Valley day and their eyes are squinting slightly against the harsh light. Their heads are together, their smiles wide. They’re dressed casually, collars open, leather jackets.

They’re in their mid-30s and they’re honeymooning, though they look older to me, maybe because they’re my parents and, by definition, old. Maybe because my father has lost most of his hair and already looked much like he would for the remaining 51 years of his life. By 1946, he had seen enough to make anyone lose their hair. But he had survived, and returned, and pursued this smiling woman with the curly red hair.

Her hair is smoothed a bit on the top and clipped back at the temples, giving her long face a heart shape. She’s wearing lipstick and the caramel-colored fringed buckskin jacket that she would wear so much it finally fell apart.

His arm is around her, his fingers gripping her and pulling her tight. It’s that gesture that deepens her smile, makes her feel safe, held, wanted, protected, desired. Beautiful. It was only in the reflection of men’s eyes that she could be, momentarily, beautiful.

And here was a man, a good man, a smart, solid, honest, handsome man, who wanted her, and wanted to stay with her, to make a life with her, for better or worse. But, in those early days, who could imagine worse?