The photo is in black and white. Graytones. The negative is scratched and bent so the picture comes out as if draped in maniacal lace. But behind the thin veil, an image flies through time at the speed of light and settles into the eyes.
She's young, her knees still chubby, her eyes still wide. Her hair falls Shirley Temple style about her shoulders. She wears a frilly dress and black patent leather shoes.
She's too small to grip the pantomime horse's withers with her knees. Her feet splay, toes outward as she smiles toward the camera in shot after shot. Smiles toward her father who snaps a picture with each revolution of the carousel.
In sixteen years this child will give birth to a child of her own. They'll say he looks like her, like her father. And time will assure that child's path will not cross this one. At the same age, they'll learn different history, different methods, and different cultures. They will never touch, and so he'll have no way to know her than by the adult he sees.
There is no history before him.
It's all a story.
And then my mom will take my picture on the merry-go-round.
She winced once against the pain, then told the intern he was a good looking young man who must have had a lot of girlfriends. At least he should be on television.
The intern blushed and left quickly. He didn't know who he was talking to. He didn't see her the way her husband did. He didn't know the beauty other men had seen. He didn't know the pain she'd endured to arrive in his care, so he could puncture her with needles when he thought it wasn't worth trying to save her. This life was complete, he thought.
One of twelve children during the great depression, her mother turned her out of the house at age 12 because the family couldn't afford to feed her. She found her way to New York City where she became one of the tribe of orphans labor laws were eventually written to protect.
Untold abuse went hidden for most of her life. It was impolite to talk about, she felt, and so those years between ages 13 and 21 are a blank to all of us now that she's gone.
Whatever happened made her fiercely independent. She needed no one, asked for nothing she didn't work for, and received nothing in return most of the time.
She met my grandfather when she was 20. The courtship was brief, and two children came quickly. Bill made her a good mate. He augmented her independence, gave her the space she needed, and was there when the nightmares got so bad there was no sleep for weeks.
On that hospital bed she told me my grandfather was a gadget man like I was-- spent the family's money on frivolous persuits. Potato peelers. Get rich quick schemes. Radios and camera equipment.
He was a bartender. A waiter. And eventually, an entrepreneur, running his own coffee shop on 3rd avenue in New York City.
She told me there wasn't a person on the planet who couldn't find a way to like him.
My grandfather died when he was 47. He spent the last year of his life in and out of hospitals for strokes. Before he died he met my father. My dad gave me the story on the day before my own wedding of how my grandfather had taken him by the wrist in an iron grip, pulled him down toward his face as he lay dying, gazed into my father's head with the eyes of a prophet and made him swear he'd take care of his little girl or die trying.
So I held my Nana's hand. She told me she was going back to Bill. I knew enough of my family's history to know that my grandfather Albert despised the name and insisted everyone call him Bill. In his day all bartenders were called Bill, and that's how he wanted to be known.
Bill and the children had been the best things in her life. The rest of it had been filled with rotten husband wannabes and doctors, inoperable diseases and bill collectors, and as far as I knew I hadn't been helpful to her during any of it.
I kissed her goodbye and her ovarian cancer killed her three days later. By then I was safely home in California. I was too busy with my life to be in New Jersey with my dying relatives. I was just another one of the guys in her life that showed up for a while and disappeared.
So then they were all gone. My Nana, my grandfather Bill whom I never knew, who no one mentioned, and whom I'd never even seen in pictures, and even my own father who'd promised to take care of Bill's little girl to his dying day.
There's little sense living in the past, I thought. We have our lives to live. We create our own histories. Each of us gets to be born, to live, and to die. Sometimes we get to be together for pieces of it. Mostly, we're alone.
Those people had lived their lives and the forces of genetics which gave root to me were neither to be given credit nor cursed. In the end it's just physics. Everything else is sentimental bullshit.
He stands on the ferry to Palisades next to his son, staring into the distance. The cigar in his hand has long since gone out. It's more a prop to keep his hands occupied than something to consume. He gestures to the Statue of Liberty. At his other side, his daughter strains over the rail trying to see past him.
The boy grips the chain link barrier at the railing that keeps little people like him from going over the side. On tiptoes, he finds a gap in the railing and peers into the distance at the bluegreen statue in the middle of New York harbor.
Bill sees them through the viewfinder. It's 1945. The war is almost over. His service is complete. After Anzio, Normandy, Belgium, he's still alive. He can go on with his life.
He snaps the picture because he knows it's good. It's art. It never occurs to him anyone will see it. Time won't let him see me, fifty seven years later, seeing through his eyes, listening to him tell himself stories.
This scanner is a Nikon Coolscan 4000 ED.
It's a good one. You can shove junk into it and get images out.
I'd been feeding it negatives from my past. It ate a film strip with a subdued whirr, and suddenly there I was again, crouching in front of my newborn daughter, snapping shot after shot, always a second too late for that ultimate gurgle, that smile-that's-gas so angelic all the wars ever fought become meaningless in its brilliance.
Red-eyed snapshots of my girls at their birthday parties. Kids closing their eyes against the bright flash. Kids captured in that fractional-second involuntary facial deformity photojournalists love to exploit on people they want to expose.
The human legacy. Pictures. I've created lots of them. Pounds, kilograms, stones, slugs. More negatives and prints than one man can carry without hydraulic assistance.
Pictures of birthday cakes. This trip to see Mickey Mouse. The trip to Paris. My wife on our honeymoon at Jamaica. My first car. My second car. Every room in the first house. The dog. The hamsters. The moon. Every relative. Every crack in every wall of every house I've ever inhabited.
What makes a man a photographer? I must have felt these things would be important some day. Or maybe I was hoping a tragic house fire would eliminate the photographic record of my life stored in a column of boxes weathering every summer and winter in our uninsulated attic, and so formally release me from my well-documented past.
What the hell was I thinking taking all those pictures?
As I scanned in a couple of negatives, my memory became my reality. I was there again in my 19-year old brain taking pictures of my college. I was there on my honeymoon. In the delivery room. On the cruise ship. On the plane.
I don't know if the photographs could transmit anything to anyone else, but it woke up long gone versions of me so that I could look at myself with my 40-year old eyes and feel all my flaws and happiness.
As I reached for a film packet my wife had stored in a giant tupperware container, I came across something strange. At the bottom were several film containers--but not the traditional black plastic kind I'd grown used to. Most were metal. One or two were cardboard.
When I opened them there were complete spools of developed 35mm film inside. The pictures on them were small--half-frame. Holding them up to the light I couldn't figure out what I was looking at on the negatives. People, for sure. Who? I hadn't taken these pictures. Who had?
I had to cut the spools into pieces my scanner would digest. I knew they were old, but they'd been forgotten for how ever long they'd been around. Surely cutting them wouldn't be too much the mutilation of history, especially since the pictures could be anything, of anyone.
When the scanner had done its job and first image came up on my screen, it took me a while to figure out what I was looking at.
Women in lace. Women in gowns. A little boy in a tuxedo holding a small bouquet of flowers.
A wedding. Whose?
For some reason the photographer had taken a series of pictures of the bridesmaids in the wedding procession. Not only were the bride and groom cut out entirely in most of the pictures, but in the few pictures they could be seen, they were sliced in half by the edge of the frame.
Whomever had done this was was a terrible wedding photographer. There was nothing but the chaos of women as bridemaids trying to walk down a wooden staircase holding a bride's train and floral bouquets, trying to balance on high heels, all some long time ago.
I got up to get some coffee, and when I sat down again and saw the series of pictures arrayed on my screen, I couldn't believe how blind I'd been.
It was probably because she was so young. And though logic said it had to have been true at some point, I'd never thought of her as someone with a childhood, a youth.
Perfectly centered in every frame, my Nana at 20 years old. She was all he cared about. Frame after frame. Tiny white kernels of rice falling around her. Whispering to a friend. Absolutely radiant. A version of my own mother, my own children.
Here she is with her whole life ahead of her. Here she is before worry creased her face. Here she is before they stuck needles in her lungs and tied her to monitors.
And I hear him thinking as if his thoughts are mine. How he missed the perfect smile by one millisecond. How this one would be the best because the sun came through the lace veils just right. If only she would look his way.
Bill's snapping the pictures. In half-frame, you can get sixty per roll. Shot after shot. Many blurred in his haste. He follows her down the stairs and toward the church, thinking that someday it would be him and her.
And then the pantomime horse on the carousel at Coney Island. The eyes and face so much like mine at that age. Shot after shot, just missing the grin. She waves hello to him. Two years old. Four years old. My mother at six years old standing under the third avenue Ell in New York. On the beach. Blowing out the candles of the birthday cake. The family vacation in Pennsylvania.
I see the shot and know he wound the camera just a little too slow. Shot just a little too fast.
The one or two that are true genius. Maybe accident. Maybe because he was too tired to compose and his eye had developed. His images dissolve the time between us.
And out of hundreds, only two pictures of him. He was always behind the lens, and his expression is always the same when they stole the camera and caught him in his own game. He's worried his wife doesn't know how to work it. Will she focus right? Did he remember to set the speed correctly? The aperture? She's not framing it right. He can see it. She's gonna cut him in half again.
I send some of the scanned shots to my mother who fills in the blanks. This is Tony, Bill's best friend. This is the guy who used to wait tables with Bill when he was working three jobs and saving money to buy his own coffee shop. This is Nana's best friend. This is Nana's big sister. This is me. This is my brother.
This how we lived, in this little place. It was everything to us.
I'm in their lives. In Bill's head. The sequence of shots tells me what's important to him. How he knew when he miscalculated the exposure and overcompensated while his subjects grew impatient--then somehow burst into laughter-driven smiles, a joke he tells to keep them patient. How sometimes, when his kids were just right and beautiful, he'd forget all the mechanics and shoot and shoot and pray he'd get it. They were what was important. Those people. Perfectly centered. Shot after shot. Everything else irrelevant.
Then I imagine him grabbing my dad by the arm, my dad barely twenty-one, and I feel him making my dad promise to protect the things he lived for.
I imagine my Nana and how she must have felt losing someone for whom she was everything.
All these years. If I'd only known.
She's too small to grip the pantomime horse's withers with her knees. Her feet splay, toes outward as she smiles toward the camera in shot after shot. Smiles toward her father who snaps a picture with each revolution of the merry-go-round.
I check the numbers on the top of the camera to make sure there's enough film left. The ride's going to last for a couple more minutes, and I need to make sure I've got enough to catch my daughter on each turn. One of these pictures is going to be a classic. I know it.
Are you there forever, little one?
No. It can't be.
In the black and white picture, the boy can barely stand on the lawn. His thighs and knees are draped in baby fat. Wisps of thin blonde hair fly from his head like the edge of a frayed blanket. His face still round. His elbows dimpled. A cloth diaper droops from the big safety pins at his waist and hangs between his legs.
A man crouches next to him, his hair is short and flat-topped from the army barber. On his haunches he's still taller than his son. His hand is on the baby's back to keep him steady. The camera flash reflects in his thick black hornrimmed glasses.
He's beaming a smile while the baby's expression is more of confusion. Maybe the kid is tired from standing. Maybe the boy's hungry. It's hard to say what I'd be thinking so young, captured in my young parents' eyes. But I know what they're thinking. How she frames the shot to center both of us. How she insists my father smiles.
Now I know why I look confused. He's tickling me to make me smile.
Forty-two years later, I'm there again for the first time.
Girl it looked so pretty to me,
Like it always did,
Like the Spanish city to me,
When I was a kid.**
I don't understand time.
*"Tales of Time" - David Sancious and Tone**"Tunnel of Love" - Dire Straits