There is a notion in some cultures that we steal a person’s soul when we take their photograph. We all have pictures. Some are tucked away in shoeboxes others are glued carefully in albums or hung on walls. Whether they are produced by a Brownie, an Instamatic, a Polaroid Land camera, or the instant photo booth in the arcade, there is a little of our soul in each one. It is true that there are some photographs that should never be made – like the one I took of Daddy lying on top of Mama’s grave or the one that Addie took of me the day I ran away for the last time. But there are photographs that are so precious they are almost worth the price of a soul. Those are the ones that capture moments of elegance, youth, hope, exuberance, wonder – precious moments in lives – before hopes were abandoned and dreams died. Those photographs remain as souvenirs of what was hoped for before life took away the dreams.
Look at the picture of the skinny young boy with the hairless chest paddling the kayak. Tell me what he is thinking as he poses for the camera – as he grins and flexes his muscles.
Look at the young girl with the floral print dress and the broad brimmed hat and the Ipana smile leaning against the young man in uniform. You can see the creek in the background. Her high heels burrow into the earth. The young man may be helping her keep her balance but she won’t marry him. She will marry the skinny boy in the kayak – one day.
As I sort through these old pictures time ceases to be linear. The picture of great grandmama as a young girl is on the page next to cousin Peggy’s wedding.
One of my favorite photos is that crinkly-edged black and white of granddaddy pushing me in a wheelbarrow. Granddaddy had dug a farm out of the earth of eastern North Carolina. He made it good enough to provide an inheritance for seven children. Mama wasted her’s and the others didn’t share. Do I remember or imagine his big strong hands on the handles of the wheelbarrow? He pushed the wheelbarrow without effort. But then I didn’t weigh much. Just a slip of a girl. Still scared of the chickens that grandmama kept.
Here is an old photograph of daddy taken in his army days. He stands with his arms stretched around the shoulders of Fatty, Toothless and Texas. I know the names because Daddy wrote them on the back of the photo along with his own, “Slim”- and the date and place: “Honolulu 1945 – Schofield Barracks”. There are palm trees in the background. Daddy is the only one wearing a cap. He is the only one with a crease in his trousers. Four years later he will have a baby daughter.
Here are more pictures of me as a child. I look happy. My hair is always combed and my bangs are trimmed neatly. Even in the black and white photographs the hues of the organdy and dotted swiss party dresses are evident. In one I am sitting in a wagon holding a birthday cake while sister, cousins and friends gather round me like courtesans. We feign delight. I pretend to blow out the candles careful to keep my dress away from the flames.
The cake is a fake. It is really a dusting powder box with holes punched into the top to hold the burning candles. Nothing in our expressions reveals the cake is a fake.