The Quiet Lives of Old Photographs

The photographs of my life huddle together in the darkness, secure in a bedroom cabinet. They now lead quiet lives, disturbed only occasionally. They once brought only pleasure to me and upon inspection, wonder. Now going through them brings a quotient of sadness too. The scale began to tip about 10 or 15 years ago. Their nearby presence exerts an energy that often tempts me to pay them a visit, but one that I usually resist. It’s a bottomless journey, that once begun leads down a road that’s too nostalgic. It invariably leads to sad emotions that I’d prefer to not indulge. It does show a rich lifetime of family times, travel, holidays and joyful events. The photos allow me to visit people who were once an important part of my life, now no longer available for one reason or another or sometimes for no reason I can state.  They just faded away.

Were my eyebrows really once that full and dark? Gazing at a photo of myself holding my infant children in my arms, I can still feel my daughter’s softness and inhale her sweet baby scent. Those sacred pleasures vanished too quickly. Pangs of times passed too quickly and unconsciously.  Another photo yields a glance of smiling faces at a school graduation. That was long ago, when there were more beginnings and a door closed meant that another door would soon be opening.

home from college, visiting my Dad

Yesterday, I uncovered a long-lost photo of my mother in her 20’s with a man other than my father. She and her gentleman friend looked very happy. I remembered her telling me many years ago that this man was her boyfriend before she met my father. They were close to engagement. And then they weren’t. The road not taken, but still present in my stash of snapshots. Does the gentleman still have a photo of my mom that his children puzzle over?

There are so many photos! My short-term attempts at organization have always run out of steam. I can never throw out enough of them to even make a small dent in their number.  Now they lay, slightly deteriorating by the day, in boxes, albums, and stacks. They give testament to a life and youth gone by. They recall young children, departed relatives, exciting trips to Europe and Japan, important birthdays, a long-lost pet. I want to bring them to life, if only for a brief visit.

The gang in Brooklyn on Halloween Eve, many moons ago!
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A gorgeous early summer day near Stockholm.

I almost gasp when looking at photos of a long-ago party at my house, celebrating the visit of Doug Elkins Dance Company in 1998. Everyone was sooo young and so drunk.

Just Married, saying goodbye to parents as we head out for the honeymoon.  1963!

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New Year’s Eve 1999

I found a photo of my mother with her arms around two of my daughters, probably taken 40 years ago. They all looked relaxed and happy. This photo brought me joy because my mother hated to have her picture taken, consequently, I have few photos of her where she seems happy and looks the way I want to remember her. She died of Alzheimer’s so my last memories of her are painful to recall. This photo helped me make her real and healthy again. The image is now on my desk and in my heart.

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My favorite look (for many years)

Thousands of digital photos sit right under my fingertips at my computer’s keyboard. They’re so easily accessible, and visited more frequently. They’re available for immediate recall and better organized.  I imagine that my grandchildren will have no boxes of photos to store.

Once again there came the time to put these memory capsules back in their cupboard.  After writing about them this time, I lovingly put them away, and even managed to feel happy.

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meeting the final grandchild!

Unconscious White Girl

My own awareness of racism in America and within myself awakened very slowly.  I still harbour some shame about that unconsciousness and unconcern that existed within me. Current times bring that personal history all to the fore and require not only national re-examination but personal soul searching as well.

The city I grew up in had a very small population of poor black factory and domestic workers.  As I remember, I never encountered students or teachers of other races all through my public education.  The only black person I knew was a middle-aged woman named Ella Mae who had moved to Mass. from Ga.  She cleaned my parent’s house once a week and cooked legendarily good sweet potatoes for us at Thanksgiving. I never asked her about her life.

My parents referred to blacks as many first generation American Jews did at that time as “schvartzes.” I knew it was a vaguely derogatory term but never questioned it until years later.  It is the only German or Yiddish word for black, but there is no doubt in my mind that what might have begun as a language issue for new immigrants to America, continued long past its expiration date. Continue reading “Unconscious White Girl”

The Way Things Were

Father’s Day becomes bittersweet once your father has passed away.  Sweet memories are combined with the ache of deep loss.

This morning I watched a CBS Sunday Morning segment with the ever-smiling Jane Pauly about a young father who’s committed to splitting half the parenting time of his two-year old daughter with his wife.  That arrangement  has been going on for a while and is nothing new, but it got me to thinking about what a remarkable departure it is from the world in which I was raised. I didn’t really become “close” to my Dad until I was an adult and I was able to let him know I wanted a more affectionate father.

Dad worked 6 days a week, minimum of 12 hours a day.  After work, he came home, poured himself a drink or two, ate dinner with us, then vanished to the den to read the paper, watch tv and doze off.  Occasionally, he’d call me into watch something with him, usually a Western or some dancers on Ed Sullivan. I never refused his invitation, because it was one of the few interactions we had each day.

Throughout his life my father was an early riser, a habit I admired, but never adopted. He would awaken me  on school mornings by poking his head into my bedroom and singing one of two songs.  It was either Lazy Mary Will You Get Up? or Oh, How I Hate Get Up in the Morning.  If I didn’t move, one song would follow another. 

The most serious conversation I ever had with him regarding my behavior occurred when I began dating a non-Jewish boy.  “There’s too many other problems you can have when you’re married, without adding religion to the mix,” he told me seriously.   Since I was nowhere close to considering marriage, I was nowhere close to worrying about religious differences.  I guess I was not too responsive because he added, “Besides, it would kill your mother.”  That was more melodrama than I’d thought he was capable of, but because it was so rare, I respected and filed his opinion.  I made a note to do a better job at covering my tracks.

Sunday was his golf day whenever the New England climate allowed for it.  He was long gone by the time I woke up on my own on Sunday mornings.  My mother liked to call herself a golf widow, but since they worked together, it was one of their few times apart.   Dad always told me I had a natural swing in the hope that I would share his passion for the game.  It never happened.

He attended all my dance recitals, more out of a sense of duty than a love of dance, I believe.  He never spoke to me about a career.  Nor did we discuss where I should go to college.  I think he just assumed I’d get married and it didn’t much matter.

When I brought my future husband home to meet my family, Dad dutifully played his patriarchal role by calling Danny into the den to inquire how he planned to support me.  Danny answered truthfully.  She’s going to support me, because he was headed for graduate school.  My Dad said a quick ok and then poured them each a drink to seal the deal.

In my early 20’s, I remember screwing up all my courage to ask my father if he loved me!  He had never told me.  He acted surprised by my question but gave me a resounding yes. He let me know that he never learned that from his father.  After that exchange, he needed no more prompting.  He frequently told me how much he loved me and vice versa, of course.

Many years passed before we would spend much time together once more. He was a wonderful grandfather, sending the kids into peels of laughter at his antics and always carting them off for ice cream. Staring contests became a dinnertime ritual when we were all together.  He never failed to win.

When my mother grew seriously ill, he and I became a team, consulting on her care.  He took care of her at home, and only acquiesced to putting her in a “home” when it became impossible for him to take care of her.  Their’s was a deep love.

Dad and me at my daughter’s wedding

I would try to visit my parents as much as I could when my mom was declining, although I still had children at home and I lived across the country.  Saying goodbye to each other became particularly harder as the years went on.  I distinctly remember having to wake him up very early one morning when I had to depart for the airport.  He sat up in bed and began to sing to me, You Light Up my LIfe!   

Lyrics: And you light up my life / You give me hope to carry on / You light up my days and fill my nights with song…Never has anyone expressed their love for me more beautifully.

On the occasion of his 90th birthday, we held a big celebration luncheon for him at a nearby golf club.  At first, he didn’t want the fuss of planning a party, but he soon warmed to it.   I made up the guest list, which just began with a few people. Each day I would be asked to add another and another guest.  Without exception, everyone we invited came to the party.  It was an amazing assortment of former customers, golf buddies, friends and family.  In the end, we had 100 guests, which was quite a testament to his popularity at age 90. Former customers  told me stories of how my Dad extended credit to them when times were tough.  With his help, they fed their families.  It was then I understood what it meant to lead a meaningful life.

Over the years, I learned some very important lessons just by being near him.  He never did teach me how to throw a ball.  But there were much more important lessons.  Dad  taught me the power of humor, integrity, love, generosity and the not to be dismissed value of a good gin and tonic.

 

 

Caught in the Crosshairs

As Mother’s Day approached this year, I began to recall the long-ago “words to live by” that were oft quoted by my Mom.  I half-listened to her warnings and guidelines because they never quite fit.  I have since realised that she was the product of a post-Victorian upbringing, passing through the “liberation” of the 1920’s and then snagged in the expectations of the stay-at-home wife/mother scenario of the 1940′ and 50’s.  She was bored living the life of mother/housewife and wanted a career.  But she lived in a world where my father had ultimate control.  He told her that the only way she could work would be if she worked at the register in the grocery store he owned. She accepted that but was never fulfilled.  Small wonder.  I still feel saddened that she never got to spread her wings. Continue reading “Caught in the Crosshairs”

Bali Hai Redux

Do you know the song Bali -Hai from the musical South Pacific?  I loved every musical I saw growing up and knew the lyrics to all of them.  When I first saw the Florida Keys in 1958, I immediately began to sing Bali-Hai.  Not a perfect fit for the occasion, but close enough to satisfy my attraction at that young age to exotica and my innate knowledge that there’s a song for almost every occasion.

I lived in Florida from 1958-1968.  Whenever possible, I tried to talk anyone I knew with wheels to drive to the Keys with me.  In those years, it was a relatively isolated piece of heaven, made more unworldly by its two-lane road, known as the Overseas Highway, of over 100 miles, improbably linking a string of small islands together until finally arriving at the southernmost end; the eccentric and slightly bad-assed city of Key West.  The shimmering Atlantic Ocean spread out on one side of the highway, the Gulf of Mexico on the other. The colors of the waters surrounding the Keys are an alluring piece of eye candy; ranging from shades of aquamarine to turquoise.  Key West itself is more of an outpost of the Bahamas than a conventional city in the USA.

If you timed your trip just right and the weather cooperated, you could watch the remarkable sunset unfold as the water reflected the giant shifting clouds.

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We left Florida behind us decades ago, ultimately moving to the West Coast.  Thoughts of the Keys dimmed with the years.

This past week we had a chance to revisit the Keys.  I’d heard that the ambience had changed dramatically because of over- development and an excess of tourism.   I approached my reacquaintance, not unlike the way one feels when catching up with an old boy or girlfriend.  Will the thrill be gone?  Will there be any attraction?  Will we have anything still in common other than our ancient history?

At first, my response was lukewarm.  Nice-to-see-you-again kind of thing.   Now that I live in close proximity to the Pacific Ocean, the watery surroundings didn’t seem as thrilling to me as they had 55 years ago. It seemed too flat a landscape, I missed the mountains. The glorious highway over the ocean now carried much more traffic.  It used to be a road we had almost to ourselves, now it was interrupted with ugly billboards advertising sandals for sale,  too many places selling seashells from distant dying ocean reefs, dive bars, and RV parks.  I began to think the love affair was over.  I didn’t feel any sense of a pilot light ignition.

But after a few days, I found my internal rhythm slowing down. I let go of my expectations.  I began to take in the natural beauty of the region again, noting that once off the main highway, life was about as casual, pleasant and relaxed as it could possibly be.  This time around there are mojitos to enjoy.  Getting up with the sunrise seemed suddenly(somewhat) effortless.  Key lime pie is readily available as is fresh fish in abundance. Who knew that Joe’s stone crabs came mostly from the Keys? Continue reading “Bali Hai Redux”