The bedroom door is painted and hanging in place, brightening the dark end of the second floor hallway. I'll put another coat of brilliant white trim paint on the door where it is to touch up rough spots and to cover others where kamikaze bugs committed suicide in oddly large numbers. All the doors are white now, and though the job is only mostly finished, I don't twitch like Adrian Monk in a pukey pre-school when I open my bedroom door and look out.
Between coats, I worked on emptying four more slide carousels. After the first two dusty and mildewy trays, I learned to work outdoors at a high rate of speed and to keep a handkerchief where I could grab it fast. One day, I hope to be able to show you specific pictures and tell you what I know about them, but I can never really tell you their stories. What I can tell you is that these pictures distill a part of our lives we don't remember well, and show us as people we don't know anymore. Let me give you an example: I had forgotten that Daria, Todd and I started out life as Dad's models, and we were photographed often, doing anything, everything and nothing at all. In ten trays of slides and with at least six more to go, and with thousands of slides in cases, I have seen a dozen pictures of my nine-year-old self in a red plaid poncho posing against a neutral background, and I now recall that sometimes, when we had no plans, Dad set up cameras, lights and screens and took pictures of us over and over again, a little this way, a little that. Dad left the next year, and it was almost twenty years later that I found a Polaroid camera, took pictures of myself and forced myself to look, such was the aversion I had developed to seeing my own face. It was nearly unbearable to see myself again. I still have those pictures. It remains painful to look at them.
It is so literal: when Dad left, he took with him my ability to see myself, and I didn't get it back until I held the camera.
In the last weeks of his life and in the middle of another story, Dad looked at me sideways and said, Sometimes, I made the story more interesting than it really was.
I tossed my head and we moved on. I learned the hard way to wait for proof, to wait for him to show me what he really meant when he offered me promises. I learned that he sometimes exaggerated or omitted details, and didn't answer questions he didn't like. It was like growing up with the Little Prince for a father, and watch out for those damn migrating geese.
In 1972, Mom, Dad, Daria, Todd and I drove up to Prince Edward Island for that total eclipse Carly Simon sang about, and Dad photographed the whole thing. Yesterday, I emptied the tray of images comprising the eclipse. Dad showed Daria, Todd, Dara and me these slides with the proviso that we zip our lips. He was weak. His need to show us what happened, why he left us, where he went was great and his time was short. He told us that his pictures were good. Some of the professional photographers didn't get images as good. A magazine we recognized but can't remember bought one of his slides. "Paid for the whole trip," he said. Yesterday, I brushed off the slides in this series and when I turned over one of them his name was printed in handwriting I didn't recognize. Suddenly, the story seemed more plausible.
Today, I emptied a tray of bright, clear pictures of Paris, 1973. My heart ached. This is a message from our father, who left his young children in the spring and never came back. I spent over an hour with these pictures of places I've only seen in books, and later, I felt as if I'd returned to my home from a great distance. I felt as if I'd been dreaming. I looked up from my work at one moment and a woman pushing a baby carriage stopped, walked up the porch steps to ask what I was doing. She spoke with a thick Russian accent about wanting to make her own artwork, which she will when she figures out how to sift every day for a few minutes to herself. Mostly, I just listened to her, because new mommies are very lonely. She introduced herself and left. It was an odd encounter, but working on the porch, I see a lot of those. On Sunday morning, the neighbor Pete and I refer to as Mr. Loud was running around his lawn with his small children. His next door neighbor came outside and they proceeded to have this conversation twenty feet apart, at the tops of their lungs.
Mr. Loud: I JUST WANTED TO TELL YOU THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS IS HAVING A FREE CONCERT THIS AFTERNOON AT THE ARTS CENTER DOWN ON THE PARKWAY -
Mr. Also Loud: ARE YOU GOING? WE HAVE PLANS, BUT WHERE IS IT?
Mr. Loud: [LONG DESCRIPTION OF SPECIFIC LOCATION, POSSIBLY INCLUDING LATITUDE AND LONGITUDE. THERE WERE A LOT OF FREAKING NUMBERS.]
Meanwhile, five or six kids were running around, screaming at the tops of their
Kids: MOMMY! MOMMY! MOMMY! MOMMY! MOMMY! MOMMY! MOMMY! MOMMY! MOMMY! MOMMY! MOMMY! MOMMY! MOMMY! MOMMY! MOMMY! MOMMY! MOMMY! MOMMY! MOMMY! MOMMY! MOMMY!
And one very patient, loud -
Mommy: GET IN THE CAR, KIDS. KIDS! GET IN THE CAR.
It was like a scene out of Edward Scissorhands.
I'd seen the slides of Paris many times, but with so many of the other trays in poor condition the clarity of these images was startling. The Arc de Triomphe rises into a clear, deeply blue sky. The girders of Eiffel Tower cast stark shadows on a brilliantly green garden. And there's Dad, with long black hair and a white print shirt. Who took the picture?
The other day, I remembered that the dark-haired man in the band looked so much like Dad that when we saw the album we asked if that was where he went on business trips. It's a funny notion now, but it made perfect sense to our child-minds. He sent us cards, letters and presents from wherever he went: dolls, candy, wooden shoes. When he showed us the slides before he died, he was angry, impatient and he felt sick. No one was happy, and he wanted us to be quiet. We - even Dara, who was 15 in 2007 and had been to Paris herself - were old enough to enjoy the pictures, but no one did. It was all very tense. While we were looking at the slides from Helsinkii, one image of something mechanical, oddly beautiful and out of place on a street corner came up on the hastily erected screen. Everyone was quiet and puzzled. I said, "That's a Wankel engine." At any other moment in his life, Dad would have pointed at me proudly and announced to whoever was listening that I was indeed his kid. This time he said simply, "Yes, it is."
When I saw this image yesterday, I saw myself.