(Essay originally published in the New England Review)
Nearly every modern individual inevitably breaks out the box of family photographs. Some are casual about it; but others, like me, go over the faded images like a scientist, a lover, an archeologist, looking for the telltale clues that will unlock the mystery of the time before one was born. A certain look in the eye tells whether he is happy with his wife; a curl of the lip tells whether she is happy with him. Their clothing tells the time in history; light tells the time of day. Grass or trees, verdant or desolate, tell the season.
I notice these things and more: infinitesimal details. The tail of a dog captured in a lower corner, an edge of pond, a thread on the sleeve. When I look at these things I am overcome by a devastating sense of loss. The picture envelopes me and I am there, inside it, at the precise moment that they are gone.
Moving pictures are even worse—those shaky, hand-held affairs are hell’s affliction to people like me. Home movies capturing a day at the beach, a child’s first steps, a thrown ball—I grieve over such films as if film were death, and death merely a cinematic repetition.
I am, one might say, a photo-phobe.
But if my ultimate experience of looking at pictures is pain, it is also true that I deeply covet them. For years I lusted after a few family pictures in particular, and the mystery lies not in this but in the fact that I lost these very same pictures, within days of having finally procured them.
The first one is of my mother and her two sisters, Molly and Gertrude, when they were girls. My mother and her sisters grew up on a farm in upstate New York with their mother, Pauline, a poor Jewish immigrant from Poland. My mother’s father died when she was twelve, leaving the women to fight for their survival alone, threatened by drunken farmhands and the encroaching poverty of the Depression.
It was a lovely photograph: three pretty, fresh-cheeked farm girls stare down at the camera, their faces pink with health and innocence. Their breasts, all large and as yet unfondled, are softly cradled in thick cotton bras behind mohair sweaters. Molly, the eldest, wears a long braid. Gertrude’s mouth is like a red heart; my mother, the youngest, glows with purest ignorance, like an angel. It was a time long before the tragedies and madness, aging and ill health pulled them back toward ashes.
I wrested this photo from the grip of my cousin Eddie, Gertrude’s son, about ten years ago. He wasn’t all that happy to give it to me. Eddie finally gave me the photograph, which he slipped into a white business envelope. He made me swear up and down to cherish it. But no sooner did I get it home than I lost it somewhere, never to come upon it again.
But look here—one might object—anyone can experience a moment of absent-mindedness. And yet the exact same thing happened with the sole surviving photograph of my paternal great-grandparents, Abraham and Leah. The owner of that photograph was my Aunt Sally, my father’s brother’s wife.
If the photographic dead have souls, Aunt Sally’s was the place for them to materialize. Before her death last year, Sally lived alone in a cavernous apartment on Central Park West. The apartment was always too hot and bathed in a perpetually crepuscular light. Nothing had changed in her apartment since my Uncle Dave’s death twenty-five years ago. Inside her closets my uncle’s fine clothing still hung, in perfect condition. On the inside of a closet door, an old brass tie rack held his collection of silk ties. Uncle Dave’s combs and brush were still on the dry sink in his bathroom, where he left them, along with a styptic pencil bearing the original faded green paper wrapper, and a nail trimmer. His dark socks, all the finest cashmere, were still neatly paired in his top dresser drawer. And to the left of the dresser is the closet in which that coveted photograph lay safe for nearly fifty years.
Whenever I visited Aunt Sally’s apartment I would make her get that picture from the closet and I would stare at it for ten, sometimes fifteen minutes, pushing my way back through the ringed layers of time until, at last, I reached those two dour-looking beings. Leah had high cheekbones and a broad, Slavic face. She had a broad lap as well, in which thick, efficient hands lay folded. Those hands made heavy pastries, pounding the dough with strength and resignation. They wrung out soaking laundry, chopped onions with a long, dangerously sharp knife. Her coarse black hair seems almost unnaturally shiny; her severe middle part, with its twin bubble waves on either side of her forehead, look like the black curtains on the windows of a funeral parlor. Her husband sits next to her, subordinate and resigned to his fate.
Clearly, she blames him for something. Disappointment hangs between them like a gauzy curtain. Is it his gentle, ineffectual nature? Some failure between the sheets? She is bossy, judgmental, controlling. Does she love him? Does he love her? As proprietors of a provincial roadside tavern in Kovna—a place inside the Lithuanian Pale of Settlement that Cossacks regularly pillaged—they hadn’t the luxury of romance. Instead, they needed each other to help in the daunting practical chores: feeding their family, nursing the sick. Love was in his nature, but was it in hers?
My own father, with his blinks, stutters, and suffering sensitivity, takes after Abe. And it’s from this man with the tender eyes that I get my gentleness, too, an ineptitude for cruelty. From Leah I get critical acumen and a—thankfully recessive—proclivity toward bossiness. How does one know all this from a single photograph? Who knows? It goes to the core of the mystery about how we know anything about one another, the mystery of human perception itself.
Anyway, one year, I was visiting Aunt Sally, and for once I didn’t even mention the photograph. I was afraid I had become tedious. But that morning, after we had eaten our breakfast under the glare of her kitchen’s fluorescent light, Aunt Sally quietly disappeared. A few moments later, she returned with the photograph in her hands.
“Here,” she said, “it’s yours.”
I was moved by her gesture, beside myself with the joy of this important acquisition. As I prepared to head back home to Boston, I placed my great-grandparents lovingly between two sheets of cardboard. I taped the edges of the boards together. For the whole five-hour train ride I kept that picture cradled on my lap, not even relinquishing it to go to the bathroom.
The following week, I brought the photo into a framing shop to get an acid-free mat made for it. I couldn’t wait to hang it on a wall, the proud possessor of my ancestry.
The day finally came and I picked up the mat along with a poster that I had framed at the same time. The saleswoman had placed the photo of my grandparents in a brown bag and taped it to the wrapping around the poster. The mat she put in a separate plastic bag.
When I got home, I eagerly tore off the brown wrapping on the poster to see how it had come out. It was a rather ugly silk screen by Keith Haring, which someone from The Paris Review had given to me as a going-away present when I left New York. It had sentimental value and some monetary value as well. I tossed the wrapping out.
About a week later, on a cold, rainy November morning, I bolted up in bed and knew at once what I had done. I looked out at the rain. At that very moment my great-grandparents were tipped over in the town dump, their images growing weak and soggy, disintegrating as the rain and stinking garbage soaked through the brown bag.
I cried within myself. I got up and ran to the closet, where I discovered the plastic bag with the ivory mat still inside. I wanted to run to the dump to rescue them, but I knew it was no use. The dump was large, and they were very, very small.
Why did I lose these photographs? A psychoanalyst might tell me that, in fact, I disliked my twin families and would sooner have disowned them than put them on my walls. But to me this doesn’t ring quite true. However irritating these people may have been during their lifetimes, the fact remains that I loved them, found strange comfort in the presence of their images, strange anguish in their loss.
I could never bear to tell Aunt Sally that I had lost the photograph she gave me, and for a while my small consolation was the thought that perhaps after her death (or covertly, while she was alive) I could call up my father’s cousin May for a copy. May assiduously collected family memorabilia. Once, I remember, she had a “family history” party at her Fifth Avenue apartment. Family photographs were scattered along the living room floor, for our viewing pleasure. May and her daughter had also made an intricate family tree, and I felt a bit ashamed not to know the names of all my long-dead forebears, as they did. Circulating her catered canapés, May’s face gleamed with a collector’s possessive pleasure, as if she felt she owned not just the photographs, but the people in them as well.
A couple of years ago, rummaging around in my parents’ attic for other items, I found an old clipping from the Jewish Daily Forward. There, staring out at me reproachfully, were the pointillistic ghosts of Leah and Abe, a copy of the very photo I had lost. Its caption, dated February of 1942, announced that a family reunion had taken place the weekend before.
However fading, yellow, and unoriginal, this newspaper print calmed my remorse, dulled the impulse to take my chances with Cousin May. Though muted, I could still see their faces. I held the clipping in my hands for a moment, then slipped it back into the attic drawer. Somehow, I knew it was safer there than with me. I would just kill them all over again.
They say it takes three hits for an advertisement to make an impression on the brain, and I think the same may be said for other impressions as well. There is a third and final photograph in this story, one that I have also retained by refusing to possess it. It is a photograph of my niece, Leigh, my sister’s daughter. She died when she was twenty, in a car accident. It is a high school yearbook photograph that my sister gave me many years ago, not big enough to frame. It floats around among old letters and canceled checks in my desk, and every once in a while when I clean out my desk I am surprised to see her face. In the picture Leigh glows with health and happiness; her long blonde hair looks freshly brushed.
On long, lazy summer mornings, I used to brush that hair for her. Standing on my sister’s porch, with Leigh sitting in a wicker chair, I would brush from the crown down her back, from the temples to the nape, in long, hypnotic strokes. I remember her hair’s silkiness and the way Leigh would shut her eyes and hum softly to herself as I brushed it. Sometimes, after I had finished, she would stand up and flip her whole head over, brushing her hair down and away from her face before righting herself, to give it body.
Now Leigh is lying in Rock Creek Cemetery, with a pink quartz headstone above her. Fell asleep at the wheel, reported the coroner. Flew out of the car and hit her head on the streetlight of a dark and empty road. For the longest time my sister couldn’t move Leigh’s things. Not the music tapes on the dashboard or the school books on the table; not the mismatched socks or rolls of film or underwear in the drawers. Then, one day when she was alone, she unplugged the phones and took those things in her hands one by one, burying her face in them. Smelling for traces.
I don’t have all those things: no jewelry or heirlooms, no clothes or handbags filled with pennies and lingering perfume. I have just this one photograph, which I am always losing. Every once in a while I come upon that picture and after a few minutes I carefully lie it back among my papers, to become lost again.
I like it this way, this random surprise of seeing her. There’s something life-like about it. And when I come upon it I look and think: between the dead and the living, what a strange dance memory does. Lost and found, and then lost again. Swinging back and forth, back and forth. And somehow between them all you get a sort of living picture, like the nickelodeons one could sometimes peer into as a child, waiting to be fitted for shoes.
“The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.” Vladimir Nabokov’s words, opening lines of his autobiography, capture that selfsame claustrophobia that has me reaching out to those two eternities, to “bruise my fists” against their elastic walls. It makes me think that perhaps in looking at photographs I am doing my best to press into the forbidden boundaries of my own limited time and place. The pursuit, as everyone knows, is doomed to failure. Perhaps, in effect, I must lose these photographs to safeguard my own provincial crack of light.
But ironically, in doing so I may safeguard theirs as well. In a recent Kodak campaign a deep masculine voice intones, “Preserve the Memories,” as if humans were incapable of memory without vision. A photo-phobe knows, on the contrary, that film is molten vision: one has to squint at it, like an eclipse, or one goes blind. But strong falsehoods possess the hidden virtue of arousing dormant truths. Not only don’t I need what Kodak is offering, but I must not need it. Because nothing can reside fully in the material and the spiritual worlds at the same time. I didn’t lose those photographs: I renounced them.
If a certain Kierkegaardian note has crept in here, it’s not by accident. The miracle of renunciation is an old, old story. Kierkegaard tells the one about Abraham who, in order to save his son Isaac, must first murder him. It crops up too, in the Hebraic edict against coveting graven images, a gesture that turns the worshipper to stone. And it’s told as well by the story of Moses. God told Moses, “There is a place by me, and thou shalt stand upon a rock and it shall come to pass, while my glory passeth by, that I will put thee in a cleft in the rock, and will cover thee with my hand while I pass by: And I will take away mine hand, and thou shalt see my back parts: But my face shall not be seen.”
It occurs to me that writing can be an act of renunciation as well. As one struggles to capture the literal truths of one’s life, the deeper emotional truths grow ever more elusive. One needs to lose memory, to renounce it, before it returns to one through the conduit of imagination: truer, deeper, more enduring.
Moses must have been annoyed by God’s flirtatiousness, showing him just the second-rate “back parts.” But the prophet received an unexpected payoff for this cosmic diffidence: the survival of his people, his faith. And so too for me: Abraham and Leah, lost in their watery junkyard grave; my mother and her sisters—so young, so angelic—they always return to me. Sometimes, just before I fall asleep, they come and sit inside the rim of my eyelids. At others, I see their shapes, like a watermark, emerge from the whiteness of a sheet of paper; or pressed against a violet winter sky. Bathed in incandescent light, they grow closer and more distinct over time. And in this light Leigh stands, too, still brushing the hair from her eyes.