Monday, February 26, 2007

Facing the Photographer

Some would have called it a favor to a friend, others an honor gracefully bestowed upon me. Whatever it was it brought up old anxieties and most of all, vanity.
A local friend, a charming and whimsical artist who has a gallery in town and a garden shop that is like a glimpse of fairyland; a beautiful storyteller and peace activist who has planted her hillsides with olive trees--she asked me one morning at the post office if I would consent to take part in her Goddess project.
Sounded pretty lofty. She explained that what she envisioned was a lot of photographs of local women. Artists, grandmothers, midwives, writers, firefighters, activists. A whole spectrum of faces. She had asked one of the most insightful local photographers to create the photos. Would I let him take mine?
I said yes, though within my heart I knew this little moment would bring up all sorts of inner turmoil.

Yesterday I walked to the pink house with the laughing Buddha in the planter box. The bright quince was in full bloom, a burning bush if ever I'd seen one.
He met me at the door. The storms had abated a bit, but I was carrying my Sistine Chapel umbrella, full of voluptuous nudes on a golden background. It cheers me up, come the weeks of winter storm. I walked past his kitchen alcove, where his wife and a friend were chatting, and into the room with the silver reflective screens and the window looking out to the mountains.

Sit down, said he, indicating the lovely, pale woven rug on the floor. I did.

Now, the whole concept of "Goddesses" had troubled me a bit--I am no goddess, nor was meant to be--and I wasn't all that certain of what the intent here might be. He'd asked, when we spoke on the phone, what characteristic item might I be holding. My answer was immediate: a pen. I always have a pen in my hand, and two or three clipped to my shirt, just in case I need to write something down--some flash of poetry, some thought. He'd said he kind of wanted to focus on hands.

I was curious about the list of women--about 30 of us--and asked to see it. He handed it over, and they were certainly all known to me: the midwife who cradled my children into the world, the artist in glass who is one of my favorite board members--the one who doesn't mind my hula hooping at important events; teachers, artists. Quite an exalted company.

The photographer, far from carefully arranging a pose, liked to snap a zillion shots while talking. Did I ever relax? No. I'm pretty sure in my background is some tribal memory of soul stealing through photographs. The only photos of myself I have really loved since childhood were taken by people who loved me. The photographer, gentle, whimsical, and snapping his shots, had no reason to love me. Did not know me, save at a distance. We got through the half hour and finally he crowed "That's it! I've got it!" and showed me the photo, in which I have a puckish smile and my hands near my face (must get those hands in).

"Hmm. I look a lot like my dear mother. Well, I loved her."

What I longed to say, what raged in my vain heart, was "when did I stop being twenty? Where have the years flown?" It is the same question I ask my mirror some mornings, as I meet my eyes--nice eyes, sometimes gray, sometimes bright turquoise, depending upon..I don't know what--and the crinkles by them, and the high cheekbones, and the nose I never quite liked even when I was little, and the myriad small lines, and the serious mouth. The photographer likes smiles. If I were to have faced his camera on my terms I would have stared it down, like the old photos of my great grandparents: a steady stare, a serious confrontation. This is who I am, and what of it?

As I grow older, and see the lines not only of my mother's face in her last years, but of her mother before her, a woman I never met but whose gaze I meet in some of my photos, I am coming to terms with...I don't know quite what. Time, vanity, the loss of youth. I have good bones, and when I reach 80 or so I plan to try to carry off the "she was a beauty in her youth" role. But this in between stage is as awkward as my teen years were. I just don't quite recognize that woman, though she has an elfin smile still, and a wicked gleam in her eyes. I don't recognize all those lines, that softening flesh.

I do recognize my hands--thin, inkstained, with broken nails from work and gardening. They serve me very well still.

After the photographs I asked to meet the birds--the photographer has some bright and lovely birds in an alcove. His wife cautioned me not to touch them, assuring me they'd bite. I went in anyway, and he handed me a bird he said was a parakeet--the largest of that sort. Orange and yellow and black and green, with a salmon ringed eye and a quizzical tilt to his head. The bird and I exchanged looks and murmurs, and the other birds gathered and watched. Pure delight. I'm sure the birds never bother to worry about how they look, or how they are aging. These ones fly and climb and murmur.

I'm trying to learn their aplomb, their joy.

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Saturday, February 10, 2007

The most enduring thing

My dear of all these many years sometimes tells visitors I have an imaginary family. It is when they are looking at one of my old photographs, propped up in some corner of the store or shining from a wall. In truth, many of the pictures are bonafide relatives--my father as a beaming two year old in his rompers with a kitten on the pocket, standing in front of a bank of irises; my grandmother on her porch; my parents as young--very young--newly weds; my mother's mother and father at the beach, staring into the sunlight with such confidence and enjoyment long, long before I was on the planet.

But I do adopt photographs. There is something infinitely sad to me about the old photos forgotten in dusty boxes in junk stores and antique stores. How did they get there? Is the family gone? Does no one remember the name of the woman with the black lace and jet pin at her throat? What about the beaming little girl with her hula hoop? These photos I take into my care, and they join my relatives.

Well, we are all related, somewhere down the line, right?

My youngest brother, the farmer in Mississippi, this year sent off a sample of his DNA to some project sponsored by National Geographic. I didn't know he was doing this until he emailed me the results. It's sort of an extension--a big extension--of his fascination with family history. Since we share both mother and father, I assume the lines traced in his cells live on in my own. And in the case of the matrilineal DNA, in my daughter.

It was no surprise to see our mother's line most common in Finland, which is indeed where our family originates on that side. What was astonishing, however, to my mind, was to think back through...what...hundreds of thousands of years to a woman somewhere in Africa, who bore a daughter, who bore a daughter..and each of these survived to bear at least one girl, who survived to...

And so on. It is like the little Russian dolls, each with a little one inside, and another, and another.

What are the odds? My father's line got traced back to the middle east. To Iran, Iraq, that area of the world. From there, eventually, the families moved on and on and on...we know this, because that line ended up in Virginia back in the 1600's.

But my mind can barely grasp all this.

I can, however, grasp photographs and oddments and bits and pieces, and catch the bits before they are lost. For at least a little while.

In the corner of a dusty dark shop I found a badly framed, yellowing marriage certificate. It is written in German, and decorated with lithographed angels and flowers and scrolls. It bids us, in German, to remember that "Lo, I am with you always, even to the end". It says, in German, "as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord". The frame is carved and painted silver. The certificate, tearing at the edges, has been pasted to a bit of flowered wallpaper.

Had they no children, no grandchildren, no tender niece who remembered them? I don't know.
But I hope that Jacob Hardi and Ida Ureck, who were joined in holy matrimony on the 5th day of February in 1910, in Dallas, Texas, had a long and happy life together. I suppose at some time they must have moved to California--how else did this certificate come to my area. I wonder about them, as I stare at the pattern of blue flowers and angels, the lithographed church, and the flamboyant signature of the priest or pastor, A. Romanowski. Bernhardt Wepf and his unnamed "Frau" were the witnesses.

Yes, it is very unlikely I am actually related to this couple. But I gather them in..remote cousins. I start inventing a happy life for them, believing in happy-ever-after stories.

In my mind it connects with two other lovers, much farther distant, found near Verona a few days ago--buried together, a lasting and tender embrace. We won't know that story either, but it touches my heart, particularly in these troubled times.

Nothing endures longer than love.