Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Ghosts of Christmas Past

I made some iPhoto albums for my family for Christmas. I've received several as gifts from my husband and they're wonderful. They're not hard to make if you've got a scanner, patience, and a half-decent understanding of Photoshop.

As I was going through boxes of old photos, I came across this one, from December 26, 1949:

I love this photo, taken by my dad — probably with his first good camera, a Rolleicord. I'm always impressed with his photos, which he developed and printed himself. That Rolleicord is still working.

Gathered in front of the tree are the rest of my dad's generation. My Uncle Bill is on the left. His sister, Jennie, is above him. Next to Bill is his girlfriend, Lillie, who is my dad's sister. She is holding my brother. My dad's other sister, Mary, is next. Finally, on the right, is my mother.

Bill and Lillie are grinning with mischief, and although they are in their 80s now, that hasn't changed. And they are still in love. When I was growing up, I'd visit them on laundry night. Bill fixed the washer so that we could watch it agitate even when the lid was open. They'd stand there, holding hands and watching the clothes churn around. This taught me that, if you even love doing the laundry together, you've married the right person.

Jennie and Mary are no longer with us, but here they seem to be gazing dreamily into the future. That future brought them both good times and pain, but life was probably never so grand as when they were this young, and going to parties and dances every week with their gang of friends, wearing pretty gowns — and never the same one twice. There are racks and racks of these dresses, some homemade, with matching shoes and stoles, moldering away in my grandmother's garret.

Now take another look at my mother. That sidelong look she's giving my brother is ripe with meaning. She has just discovered that she is pregnant with my sister. No one will be told for awhile, because my mom had had miscarriages. But there she sits, like the Madonna in an Annunciation painting, practically bursting with her happy secret.

My brother isn't paying any attention. He is not gazing angelically toward the heavens, either. I suspect he is staring up at a snarling stuffed bear head in the center of a wall full of hunting trophies belonging to my grandfather and my Uncle Motty. There were three deer heads, nearly two dozen racks of antlers, a lynx, a pheasant, and, eventually, a stuffed fox. They kept us kids mildly spooked — yet entranced — through family dinners for decades. (No wonder I feel so at home in Paris in Deyrolle.)

The following August, my sister was born. When she was about 5, she was the flower girl in Lillie & Bill's wedding. The other women in this photo were bridesmaids. This lavish event, with 300 guests, was photographed by a professional, who was continually surprised that he still had so much film left in his camera. (He'd spooled a huge amount of film into a canister himself so he wouldn't have to keep changing rolls.) At the end of the evening, he realized he'd neglected to put that full canister in his camera. A few snapshots of my dad's are all we've got. (He was supposed to be the main photographer, but his arm was in a sling from an accident with a saw.)  We have a photo of my sister, looking adorable and carrying a little birdcage full of flowers.

As a child, I frequently complained to Lillie and Bill that it was mean and unfair of them that I didn't get to be a flower girl, too. They would point out that their wedding was many years before I was born, but I didn't care.

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