Do you ever look at old family pictures and wonder at the innocence they portray? How we knew nothing of the life that was to unfold? How each decision we made took us in one direction or another, and that direction completely changed what might have been another outcome? Do you look into your own eyes in a photo, seeking clarity and understanding?
The other night I had a dream that a family problem had been resolved to the satisfaction and joy of all involved. It was just a dream, but also a hope that I harbor. It drove me to my box of family photographs, each one capturing a moment in time, now long gone. Some of the photos triggered a memory of what was going on in our family at the time. For others? I could only intuit.
But looking at old photographs with the benefit of age and maturity, I see things that weren’t apparent in the past. Delving into 60 years of old photos, I began to understand how our dysfunctional family dynamic developed. How it came to be.
I remember this doll and the rocking chair. I’m standing in front of the fireplace in the apartment above my father’s office, my first home. Even at two, my dark eyes look out at the world with a certain seriousness and maybe a bit of uncertainty. The smile doesn’t look joyful or even innocent. Children know more than we think they do. What did I know, then? Did I sense my mother’s unhappiness? Was my father as stressed and exhausted as he became later in his pediatric practice?
Thinking, always thinking, even as a child. I never felt exactly like other kids; I didn’t know how I was different, just that I was. Of course, children don’t value what differentiates them from the crowd. They value belonging, not separateness. And yet, I was never like my family, not in any way, shape or form. I felt like an outsider, always.
My father was called back to the Navy during the Korean War. My mother was pregnant with my sister and I was daddy’s little girl, the oldest. I didn’t know I was favored until decades later, when, on her death bed, my mother told me that I had been my father’s favorite. Who knew? We had butted heads throughout my adolescence; so much of my life was spent dealing with the havoc that relationship created in my life. I never figured I was the one. If I’d realized it, my life could have been very different.
Patent leather shoes, all the rage back then. I wonder about this little curly-haired girl in the photo above. I was never shy at all–rather precocious, in fact–but in this photo, I look shy, or at least camera-shy. Maybe I was worried about seeing my Daddy after he’d been away. Or maybe I didn’t want my photo taken.
Those eyes. Again. By this time, the reality of life in my household was apparent. She doesn’t look happy, does she? Of course, it’s equally plausible that she was simply annoyed at the photographer. I never HAVE liked going along with the program. In those days, my mother chronicled our lives with annual professional photographs, sometimes used in Christmas cards. Those ringlets were prized, at least by my mother.
My mother sent me to dancing lessons for a year or two. Not too long. This Bo Peep get-up was for a recital. I never did develop much grace in movement, so I wish she’d continued these. My sister, three years younger, never went to dance class. Was this was the genesis of her feeling that she was treated “less than” in the family? Did that simple maternal decision insert the first wedge between my sister and me? Of course, dance class was not in the cards for my brother, the middle child. I’m sure my Sicilian-American father felt it would not be “masculine” for his son to take dance. This, too, was an indication of the attitudes we grew up with, the ones that colored our lives in ways unrecognized and difficult to overcome.
This photograph was taken on Portland Avenue in Rochester, NY, I think, near the home my mother worked hard to buy for her parents. My grandfather was my mother’s best friend and a refuge from the marriage she was miserable in. “Papa” was what we called him, and he was a kind, thoughtful, gentle man, a peacemaker. He had great influence on us and his ability to smooth things over was sorely missed as our family spun out of control well after his death. These happy smiles aren’t seen often in photographs I have and are a tribute to the love and safe haven Papa provided. Papa was all about unconditional love. All of his grandchildren adored him.
Let’s jump ahead in time:
I don’t know what year exactly, but not too long after this my brother began wearing a woolen cap to dinner, hiding the long hair my father disapproved of. He looks miserable, doesn’t he? Dad doesn’t look too thrilled, either. You can see the stiffness in my father’s face; he’d gotten very entrenched in his conservative beliefs as we hit adolescence, and tried in vain to keep us under his thumb. We wanted no part of it, especially me. I was openly defiant, which created constant conflict between us. I see now that he must have respected that I had the courage to push back, considering I’d usually get the crap beat out of me.
My mother’s smile hid her pain. My father wasn’t the husband of her dreams, to say the least, and she’d compensate in many different ways over the years. In the end, they were both glad to have each other, but getting there was painful and ugly for them both and for us. Our marital role models were awful and our subsequent relationships reflected that.
My sister was a pathologically shy girl and teen, who seemed meek and mild. Who knew that she felt slighted by my parents and overshadowed by me? That wouldn’t come out for years and when it did, it was with a vengeance. As for me, well, by then I was keeping my own counsel, anxious to get away from home so my ‘real life’ could begin.
I’m pretty sure that lipstick is Raspberry Glace by Clinique and I still use it occasionally. By this time, I’d been married to Michael and divorced. I had just remarried–my rebound husband. I was in the flush of new love–although it was a terrible fit and wouldn’t last long. When my grandmother turned 80 my parents had a big party for her and I flew in from my home in Tallahassee to surprise her. I was the only one of the three kids to move away and build a life outside of our home town. It’s clear now that my choice to stay away and make periodic “appearances” back home was out of the norm. My appearance was “an event.” It made me different from my siblings, which my sister must have defined as being treated “special.” My visits were “occasions,” while they lived there all the time. Such is the stuff of which resentments are born.
But I was not to understand that until my 50s.
Each time I reach into my boxes of photos I come out with a handful of clues about my family, clues I might not have noticed years ago. I’ll be going back to those photos again and again in the hope that they’ll help me gain clarity and understanding.
What do old photographs tell you? Do they seem different with age and distance? Do you have more insight when you look at them now?