|Lynne Kirlin, high school graduation photo, Council Bluffs, Iowa, 1952|
So my brother Pat was going home for Easter for the first time in a decade, this time with his wife, Traci, and 8-year-old son, Cullen. I’d planned to go home (funny how we talk about going “home,” which is where our childhoods were, our family hearts are, but it’s really so alien to me—everything that was gargantuan in my childhood, from the yard to the bookshelves to the couches, to my parents’ bodies, seems too small now, or else I’ve become outsized in my skin) in May, but now was just fine. I booked a bus, and on the ride to D.C. I realized that Cullen was the right age to show photographs to, to show him some of his ancestors.
My mom, Lynne, has always had a very strained and complicated relationship with photographs. Growing up, though, we had a 14” or so square wicker basket that contained all the childhood, youth, and pre-marriage photos she and my dad possessed. Tossed into it over the years were ones they took together, along with the holiday pictures sent to us by aunts and uncles—cousins’ school pictures or family snaps—as well as pictures taken by neighbors. The fun of this picture basket was that you could dip into it and pull up a random memory, which really is how our minds work, when it comes to that—a photo album is made to show the chronology of events, or maybe is based on a theme of our lives, but the basket has always felt more honest in relation to the way events will make us recall a family story. “Oh, that reminds me of the time my mom opened the door for Nadine’s piano teacher, and my dad was standing in the kitchen with his back to them, pouring water from a kettle into the coal stove, and the teacher only saw my dad’s hands in front of him and the water coming out in a stream, and she gasped….” (That’s a memory that really wouldn’t belong in anyone’s formal chronology of events, you know?)
In graduate school I read a book called Storyteller by Leslie Marmon Silko, a marvel of a book about the role of story in shaping a culture, in this case, the Navajo culture in the American Southwest. In the introduction she talks about the Hopi picture basket, a tradition that developed once Native Americans started accepting photographs as part of the way to tell the story of the People; and this decision, coupled with the decision to embrace writing and not only the oral tradition to continue the stories, was not made lightly, either. When I read about the Hopi picture basket, I remembered ours, of course, and wondered if it’s something lots of people started doing when they couldn’t afford the materials, time, or even the imaginative energy needed to make picture books.
In addition to the basket, my mom had a photo album of her life in the United States Navy from 1956 to 1963 or so (her marriage and pregnancy meant she’d be leaving by May of 1964), and it has always been one of my favorite things to look at. All my life, it rested atop a stack of art books on the right-hand side of the built-in bookshelves my parents had put in when they moved into their house 8 weeks after I was born. We were the only family I knew that had a “library”— and the “collection,” such as it is, consists even today mainly of my mom’s college textbooks (English Literature, American Literature, Plato, Spanish history, algebra, grammar), science texts (The Sea Around Us, The Microbe Hunters, archaeology, Egyptology), Agatha Christie mysteries, and great works of literature (Thackery, Austen, Thoreau, Twain, Melville, Cervantes, poetry anthologies, the Brothers Grimm, the Brontes). As I say, it looks so small now, this library, but its presence was one of those things that set the O’Haras apart from their neighbors, another way my mom was just not like the other mothers. It made us weird, and yet also inspired awe: "Your mom has read ALL of these?" (What choice did Miss O’ have then?)
So the album: What I’ve always loved about that large, square, tan-covered collection of navy-era pictures—placed on large black paper sheets using adhesive photo corners, black or white—was how it told the story of my mom before “us”: Scenes of my mom in the rain forest in Puerto Rico; at the Breakers in Newport; at attention in uniformed inspections on various bases, my mom’s tanned legs preventing a need for regulation hosiery (“My CO never noticed the difference”); her formal naval portraits in both white and black uniforms; and candid shots of lots and lots and lots of parties and all the fabulous dresses my slender and glamorous mother wore to them. My favorite of the dresses was a deep taupe, or dark brown-grey cotton dress with three-quarter sleeves, fitted bodice and flared skirt to the knees, with large white windowpane lines across the fabric, its only pattern. The dress went up to the neck, but was backless, which I know because of the photo of my mother in an embrace, the man’s arms around her bare back, lips in a passionate (and doubtless drunken) lock—really wild to see when you realize, “This is my mom,” and how they all were probably 24 but looked 35, which made that photo all the wilder.
Also there were snaps of navy people, including the last active-duty Commodore; my mom’s CO, Lt. Doug Kiker (who would become an NBC news anchor); Kate Barker, a fellow WAVE (they were still called that then) who used to visit when I was little—a large woman who looked like Kate Smith and drove a Cadillac convertible (which I asked for a ride in by promising her a ride in our Volkswagen—and what a ride!; and Laura Corr, another WAVE, who was from New Orleans and gave me a black Mammy doll when I was a baby (I still have her and treasure her), because Laura was reared by her own mammy (Laura was, as it turned out, the first true bigot my mom ever met, but otherwise a fun gal). My mom realized later that Kate and Laura, though never with each other, were lesbians—another interesting facet of life in the album. In the back of this same album, after her naval career pictures, rested, loosely, various other photos, including some of her cousins’ weddings, my favorite being an 8” x 10” of her white-tuxedoed cousin Bob shyly posing with a silver ladle, serving punch into a silver cup to his shy new wife JoAnn, ca. 1960, and you know full well these two were complete innocents upon entering the marriage state; overseeing this scene was my gorgeous Grandma Kirlin, who wore plastic floral costume jewelry like a Hollywood star wears diamonds. I used to stare at that black and white picture for long minutes—my twice-divorced, struggling grandma (Bob’s beloved aunt by marriage), looking on with such love and hope at these two sweet newlyweds at their wedding reception; but this scene is made into a story by the way my grandma, in profile, is leaning hard on the table, the fingertips of her two hands pressed hard on the cloth, and one wrinkled, fleshly elbow exposed below a cream short sleeve of her black and white dress—a pose that says, however unintentionally, “Kids, good for you, but this isn’t going to be easy.”
So many pictures: I have looked at this album on nearly every visit since college, a flip-through of my mom’s story, and I understood more about her because of it. I needed the proof of this album. My mom is a very closed person, and one not given to sentiment, though she drops a story from time to time. I said earlier that my mom has a complicated relationship with photographs, and here is what I mean: Whenever I visited other people’s houses, I noticed that almost no one had books, but nearly everyone had framed photographs of family members hanging on the walls or resting at angles on ledges. When I asked my mom why we didn’t display photos, Lynne replied sharply, “Because it’s morbid." (She always used really cool words like that and didn't define them.) "Why do I want to look at dead people up on the walls? And it’s silly to put up pictures of living people—I see them all the time.” And that was that. When my friend Patty became a framer in 1988, I found all of the 8” x 10” photos we had, along with dozens of old family snapshots that looked special, and had Patty frame all of them. I gave them as presents to my family for years. The year I quit teaching the first time, in 1990, and worked for a farm paper, I absconded with the picture basket and made photo albums for all of us for Christmas, leaving quite a pile in the picture basket nonetheless, because I would miss dipping in if I hadn’t. To my surprise, my parents have hung all the pictures I’ve had framed for them, and they keep the albums out where everyone can see.
So when I got home on Friday afternoon, wanting to prepare for Cullen’s arrival on Saturday, I went upstairs to the bookcase to retrieve the navy album, but it had been moved. I called to my mom, who was coming up the stairs, “Mom, where is your navy photo album?”
Lynne said, “Oh, I threw it out.”
Threw it out?
My spine seized. I gasped. And I began to sob, the tears uncontrollable. “Oh my god. You didn’t….”
And Lynne surveyed me quizzically, as she does, and said flatly, as she does, “I didn’t have any attachment to those pictures. What do you care? Less junk to clean up when I’m gone.” My tendency to tears has always annoyed her—I am a sentimental O’Hara, one of my many deeply unattractive qualities, whereas Lynne, a survivor of astonishing inner strength, gets on with it. And in this event, I had no one to share my grief with: curiously, my father and brothers had never even looked at that photo album, had no idea what I was talking about when I’d mentioned she’d tossed it in the trash. (Another of my deeply unattractive qualities is snooping, looking at notebooks and inside albums and through boxes. I had another moment of panic but didn't ask if my mom had thrown out her college writing, which I'd loved to read. These things are my mother's after all, to do with as she wishes. I have no claim on them. (Note: Pat just told me he snooped and looked at that album, too.)
As to the depth of my grief, the torrent of unexpected tears, what I understand now is that this is how I will feel—only more so, much more—when I learn, as I eventually will, that my mother has died.
Long Ride Home
At the Braddock Road stop on the Metro (as I headed to Union Station on Sunday afternoon, after a very pleasant holiday hiding Easter eggs and watching the joy with which my nephew hunted for them; a fine day also to throw the Frisbee and the football; and to share a neighborhood moment as we all walked down to the corner of Alaska Road where a car had somehow crashed through a fence on one side of the street and ended up crashed into a house on the other—Cullen even mimicked the way we all walked with our hands in our pockets to survey the scene, trying to solve the mystery amidst the flashing siren lights—no one was hurt), as the train doors opened, a woman of about 40, plain-faced, her mouse brown hair chopped sharply just beneath her ears, entered with a younger, bearded man in an army green canvas jacket. They sat across the aisle from me, and the woman, who was speaking in the clear voice of someone who more or less wants the car to overhear, shared her anger and confusion over having been made to reconcile all her early years of catechism with public school lessons in evolution (“and then later you realize Darwin’s not right, but it’s too late,” and Miss O’ managed not to interject, “Um… actually…”), and what a trauma that was for her and, in her view, is for all children to learn the truth about things like the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus, not to be told from the beginning that all of these things are symbols, and yet where is the wonder? “You can only find wonder with God, and we need to teach that…,” and the young man had his own anger over his upbringing, but he didn’t get many words in before they exited at Pentagon City.
I’d remembered to ask Pat and Traci, as we prepared to dye Easter eggs and when Cullen was outside, “Does Cullen still believe in the Easter Bunny?” and it turns out he does, and I told my mom, “Mom, Cullen still believes,” and my mom was delighted—we’d made his Easter basket already, and now she knew to have it set out before he got up in the morning. Lynne the Realist—the rigorous student who in her papers forever challenged the Jesuits of Creighton University on the doctrines of the Catholic Canon; the agnostic/atheist/do-your-own-religion woman who thinks sentiment is stupid—this same woman is yet deeply in love with Santa, ghosts, all things Halloween, and the Easter Bunny candy delivery system. And so I started thinking about how Santa Claus is different from catechism teachings, er, evolution, and I remembered Pat saying that when Cullen asks him (as he most likely will this Christmas) if Santa is real, “I’ll tell him Santa is here,” and he pointed to his heart, “and that’s as real as it gets.”
The science of Darwin is the outer-directed world of measurable facts. Where God dies as a concept for so many occurs at the point where God is treated like Darwin rather than like Santa. God is also Santa, and the Easter Bunny—the God of any religion has to live in a person’s heart, or not at all, is the point. I do hope that someday that very troubled woman on the Metro is able to find that truth inside herself—funny how a stranger’s torments can haunt me.
This got me thinking that my mom’s photo album—her life before us—was a tangible, measureable thing that is simply no more, just as she will be, just as my dad, Bernie, will be; as I will be. Here and gone: to be, and not to be. And so I am writing about it, how I will hold it in my heart, which is where it really lives anyway. The rest is so much paper.
It’s Up to You, New York
A 7-hour bus ride into Manhattan was made out of what should have been just over four-plus, through fog and traffic pile-ups (though the Lincoln Tunnel would be empty and the subways merciful), and during the last two hours a man behind me began a round of cell-phone calls which made those of us around him want to deck him, mostly because he seemed to want us all to hear them. One ongoing conversation was about editing a letter, “‘To that end,’” he insisted, “should be the wording,” at one point. He punctuated conversations with phrases like “it’s a new day,” and with addresses of “my Brother,” and eventually I think we all began to realize—though it took over an hour for me to realize it, and maybe I’m slow, though I was dozing as much as his voice allowed—that he was doing his round of Sunday night therapy calling, either as an AA sponsor or some kind of counselor, where he talked basketball and hope, urging each person on the line to get to the next day. The two and a half extra hours on the road may have been the reason for the “fuck it” attitude of his natural and too-audible voice, the reason for blithely irritating his fellow passengers while he went about his business of saving lives. Still, I could not completely be okay with it. If the man had preceded his calls by saying to the passengers around him, “Guys, I am a counselor and people depend on me to contact them,” would we have been more understanding? Or did we have to have the reasons for his calling slowly dawn on us to reach that place? I don’t know. I only know that I could not wait to be in Queens, in my own bed, and out of that dark night of other people’s souls.
The Thousand Natural Shocks That Flesh Is Heir To
When I got off the bus on 7th Avenue, I was heavy with the need for sleep, as I say, and also deeply sad. It was partly about my mom’s discarding of an item of too much importance to me, but really there was something else I couldn’t put my finger on. I woke up feeling as if the world was different, this small shift, couldn’t quite figure it out. I began writing this, and something told me what it was, and I logged onto Facebook and there was a message from my dear friend George: “Do not go public with this yet, but my mom died in her sleep last night…” and there it was. George’s mom, Judy, was gone. She deserves a tribute I don’t know how to give here, and she will have a beauty of one from her loving son.* I met Judy a few years after I’d graduated from Bread Loaf (the graduate school where I’d met George), but my first encounter with her gifts (aside from her son, who became one of my best friends) was a Bread Loaf tee shirt George presented me with for my graduation, tie dyed by Judy herself. George imitated her, “I’m not sure what I want to do. Do I want to swirl or do a spiral?” and told me how she’d stared and thought it through before going with pink sunbursts. I know a hundred stories about Judy, just as George knows a hundred about Lynne. Our moms figure at the heart of our life stories. I’d like to think my mom will be around another decade, but one never knows. Judy was doing well up until she was about 80, five years ago, and then began what George called “the long fade.” Lynne is 79.
I have deeply wise friends who are biologists and poets, some of whom reflect on death and what that means, and some who don’t. All of them are engaged with life, though, and some step aside at moments and wonder what in the hell that means; and others are at one with living, present to it, and try to keep the ego out of it all, not worrying about the meaning at all. For myself, I’m in it up to the neck and into my head, down the spine and through the heart, ego and all, death and life, and can’t seem to be otherwise. What I mean is, as far as I am concerned we are all in this picture, until we are not, and I mean to keep the album and look hard at each and every person in the photograph for as long as I can. And mean it.
|Miss O' with her mom, Lynne, in Virginia, 1964|
(P.S. The long fade: I made another discovery that I really can’t bear to write about. That old picture basket? I couldn’t find it. I guess Lynne threw that out, too. I was too choked to ask.)
(*And she does: Tribute posted on Facebook. Love to George, Apryl, and Sam, in memory of that angel of a human, Juliana Lightcap, 1928-2013.)