This photo of my father, sister, and me on the back porch at my grandmother’s served as a writing prompt. It goes on some but if you want the gist, just read the first two paragraphs. Some of the pix below are double exposures created in response to this week’s Paris Collage Collective’s challenge. Those filter-plays made a statement about memory — how in one moment one detail comes forward and another fades and in another moment, some other emphasis occurs, some other element disappears.
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The thin woman on the porch lounger I don’t recognize, but she is my mother. Her eyes are closed, head canted away from the chair across the porch where my grandmother — her mother-in-law — sits. Is it respite Mom seeks? A moment of quiet in the hubbub of family — nieces, nephews, sisters and brothers-in-law — all crammed tight in the borough of Queens, mere blocks separating their cluttered lives?
Meanwhile, on the steps my father puts one paternal arm around my sister, who is seated on his lap, and uses the other to pull a reluctant four-year-old me into his side. He looks intent. Perhaps he exerts a little force. The sun is in his eyes. Does my mother sleep or merely pretend? I’m certain that I am whining, while my sister stares with a stoic maturity at the camera lens, her left arm hanging at her side, a casual refusal to hold the fatherly hand that keeps her on his lap.
His hand looks so big.
My sister and I wear matching red plaid dresses with white aprons. I’m certain my mother sewed them. Earlier that day, she must’ve helped tug on our matching white ankle socks and buckle our patent leather Mary Janes.
His hand so big, our Mary Janes so small. A repeating rhythm of white — socks and apron bibs. His face intent, mine in high whine, my sister stoic.
I imagine my grandmother is talking to my mother and my mother’s closed eyes and head canted away constitute a pointed refusal to engage. It’s not just the weariness, in other words, of raising children. There is a third out of the frame, by the way — my brother.
Legend has it my mother was hysterical and temperamental but to hear her tell it, the family in Queens was cruel and excluded her. Who wouldn’t turn away? Who wouldn’t throw a dish or two at some later date, especially if after twelve years or so she continued to feel marginalized, unheard?
I can speak to my mother’s bouts of hysteria but I can also say with confidence that she was a good judge of character. So who knows? I suspect alcohol had a lot to do with any undercurrents and skewed allegiances.
My whining face shows up again and again in the scant archive of my girlhood. Usually with my father behind the lens, perhaps in service of a Christmas photo. Early on I think: what a sour puss! Later: what was it about my father’s gaze that so discomforted me?
Who knows with what harsh insistence he demanded we three sit still? My squirming surely had something to do with the outfit as well — the built-in tulle slip, itchy in the extreme, and the too-tight collar, one year wrapped in a faux mink.
We were special alright. The matching expertly-made outfits a kind of testimony.
When my cousin sends batch after batch of recently converted slides, the paucity in my own family record is once again brought to mind.
The gaps in the record. The whining.
On a porch in Woodhaven, Queens, I am sipping Coke out of a glass bottle. Unbeknownst to the adults, ADD not even being an idea back then never mind a diagnosis, the caffeine probably calmed me, afforded some extra boost with which to deal with the reluctant pose, the itchy dress, the summer sweat in my father’s armpit, my mother’s non-discriminating refusal to engage.
In many pictures I can’t tell if the tow-headed girl is my sister or me.
In one batch, there are gleeful baby shots. Clearly me but a version I am unacquainted with. There I am clothed only in a diaper — smiling, mouth open in laughter, a slight blur because I’m leaning into a joyful roll. These photos are doubly provocative. One — as previously mentioned, the absence of such photos in my family photo boxes. And two, the near certainty that someone NOT MY FATHER looked through the lens, therefore capturing a child mid-rolic, giggling with a sparkle missing in every single Christmas photo.
I say “every single Christmas photo” like it was an annual thing when it may have only happened twice. The tradition unsustainable, for whatever reason.
We came to the porch in Queens from Schenectady, Pittsfield, or Rome, Georgia. Outsiders. Tow-headed from southern sun — okay Georgia, then. Where my brother was born. Dressed like little dolls, fed Coke, called to sit for a picture. My father sports a crew cut — the engineer on a corporate ladder, unlike the family he left behind — cops, homemakers, secretaries, and linemen. He pulls me close. I don’t like it. My mother’s head turned away, eyes closed.
If I saw girls dressed like this today I’d cringe and wonder what nightmarish home schooling they were made to endure, what fundamentalist dogma corrupted their souls. But back then it was standard fare. Siblings dressed as twins. A mother who sews.
And then there’s the father trying to exert control, imposing mild threats perhaps, one daughter wriggling in complaint, the other consigned to his big hand on her thigh, her own hand hanging down, passive and apart.