(A journal entry about photos and my parents.
Before I actually begin this entry, because I keep forgetting there are people in my life who don’t know, for context (of this journal entry, past writings and future writings): three years ago last November my mother had a stroke and has been put in palliative care. I don’t visit often; my father does. That’s pretty much all the context you need.)
Christopher Titus has a nice bit in Norman Rockwell is Bleeding when he talks about the indignity of moving back into the parental home as an adult, contrasting his seventeen year old self ungraciously telling his father that he would never see him again (and stiffly changing from ‘dad’ to ‘Ken’) with his twenty-one year old self dragging his heels and wailing “DAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAADY! My key doesn’t work in the door anymore! …I have laundry!”
Like most of Titus’ work, it strikes an odd chord with me, partially because I dragged my heels moving out (though not for the usual reasons – though that’s a story for another journal entry) but also because mid-last year, I had to move back in with my father.
At first I thought it would be fine. Since about the age of seventeen my father and I had got along fine (in fact, in retrospect, since hitting about nineteen, with a few exceptions, my father and I got along better than myself and my mother). But my eldest brother – who had occupied the house previous to me – warned me that if I needed help, I should call him.
Oh yeah. Help happened.
It turns out, living in a house with a depressed man grieving his wife isn’t a great living plan, though it does occasionally provide fodder for rather witty jokes to your friends. (“So what is your dad like in a mopey mood?” “I miss your mother so much…dad, I just asked what drink you wanted…”)
That said, my father is a lot better these days, and I am in the process of moving out (mostly because taking a weekend away from my dad every couple of week is not a sustainable living plan).
So last night I was joking about how my friends never believe me when I mention how long my pixie-short hair used to be (almost hip-length), and my dad joked that I should find the photos of the couple of times my mum got my hair braided.
This is family legend. Mum decided to go on a dig in Uzbekistan, and my immediate reaction was that I did not want my father trying to brush my hair and ripping half of it out, and my father’s immediate reaction was that he wasn’t sure he had the time to brush my hair every morning (when your hair is as long as mine was, brushing it is a two-person job).
So mum dragged me to a store downtown owned by a group of lovely African women who did my hair in braids for me*.
And yes, before you ask, undoing them was a nightmare.
But finding photos of my braided hair led to my father and I go through the family’s photos, kept not in photo albums (too easy) but in assorted piles in bags.
I’ve always felt that I never really understood why my mother, a beautiful young woman with masses of auburn hair and gorgeous hazel eyes, fell in love with my father who, in every photo of him when they were dating looks, well, like a nerdy dork. Might be the glasses.
Then I came across a photo of my father holding my eldest brother. I’ve been around enough babies now to recognize a very young one, and I asked.
“That’s me holding Lawrence for the first time.”
He looks enraptured in the photo. Not joyous, but contemplative, quiet. And, as always, I have a hard time connecting this pale, unlined figure with my father, always dark from his years working on the farm, face lined by the years and by laughter. But something in the character of the face reminds me of the handsome man who raised me, and I can see something in the expression that makes me think I might understand how he could have, as he always puts it ‘tricked’ my mother into loving him.
We go further through the photos. There’s a more recent photo of myself, my father and my mother on lake Rotorua. Father is grinning at the person taking the photo, mother is smiling and me, halfway through eating an apple, looks slightly embarrassed. I’m fifteen in that photo, I remember, wearing a t-shirt and an old button-up of my brother’s over jeans and sneakers. Even back then, I felt I wasn’t really a girl or a boy, but something in between.
My favorite photo is a beautiful one, again, shortly after Lawrence’s birth. My father stands in a suit, holding Lawrence, looking, if I’m honest, slightly perplexed, but happy. My mother, still heavy from pregnancy, wearing a dress covered in beautiful designs and colorful patterns, leans in to adjust the wrappings on Lawrence. My father has an arm around her, pulling her closer as she does so. Her eyes are half-lidded, and she seems entirely oblivious – or possibly just uncaring – to the photographer. As family portraits go, it seems simultaneously staged and candid, my father attempting a proper pose while my mother subverts it. It’s lovely.
My father’s favorite photo, however, was a candid photo of my mother from England. She is wearing a plain white muslin dress, and is caught mid-laugh, her eyes crinkled into crow’s feet, her shoulders thrown back; looking at the photo, you can tell that she was the sort of woman who felt the laugh in her whole body, a trait she passed onto all her children, from Lawrence’s big belly laugh to Nick’s high chuckle to my hysterical giggle. It is, in many ways, a photo that sums my mother up perfectly: lined and starting to go gray, but laughing beautifully. Just looking at the photo makes me think of my mother’s infectious laugh, of how she would laugh so hard she cried, and that would always make her children start laughing too, while her husband, baffled, slowly began to chuckle, puzzled as to what we were all laughing about, but still chuckling.
Maybe that’s why, going through the photos, there weren’t any tears with me and my father. A couple of laughs, a few sad, quiet moments but, mercifully, no tears. Just us sitting there, smiling, remembering the good times. Not the bad ones.
All in all, a good, if slightly sad, night.
*Yes, this is, strictly speaking, cultural appropriation. Cost about $150, so at least the women were charging pretty high prices for us to appropriate their culture, and as far as I know the store is still going strong. I got my hair braided twice more: once just because, and another time because I was in a show and our costumes required it. I’m still not sure entirely how I feel about it, though looking back on it, it really, really did not suit my face.