This photograph was taken in December of 1962, and my only clue that it was the Christmas season is the decorated tree behind us, a scrawny thing, but it represents an effort. (I note that there are even a few wrapped presents at the base.) The seated older man in tie and sweater is my paternal grandfather Raffaele, with Rose, his second wife, at his side. On the floor is my father, holding my youngest sister Libbie, then me in the middle with my beloved cat Colonel, and my other sister, Marlene. It’s a picture that tells many stories, both in what is seen and what…or who…is missing.
Among the missing are my brothers. Where were the boys? And my mother, unless it is she who took the picture, but there was never a reshuffling for a shot that would include her, and there is a lingering sense of exile attached to her. So this is about as close as we ever got to a family gathering. There was always someone gone or something wrong, some disaster in progress or pending. But oh, how we tried! I think that’s what makes it all so poignant. Everyone had such good intentions and lofty aspirations.
1962. We had moved from the city that summer, and this was our first Christmas in our Long Island house. It was a good brick 1920s house on a lot still edged with woods. I remember the uneven stucco wall surface of the living room, and its main feature…the fireplace…which we would never use. That peculiar semi-circle couch had once resided in the waiting room of my father’s by-then-defunct chiropractic office in Brooklyn. It was orange, a unique mid-century piece, its pedestal perfect for piling magazines, or in this case placement of a small Christmas tree.
My grandfather’s visit would have made this an occasion. I can see that my father, always in charge and overworked, is trying to orchestrate things, his hands in the midst of some instructional gesture, probably telling Libbie to look up at the camera, the fatigue in his eyes barely concealed. Of course my dear Marlene chose to wear her patent leather shoes and to hold her palms together as though in prayer. There’s nothing accidental in that–she had a sense of ceremony and undoubtedly felt that a religious pose would be appropriate for a picture commemorating this holy time of year. (She was full of songs, too, and gifted with a beautiful voice.)
Meanwhile Rose, who was never loved by any of my grandfather’s sons (yet another story) is looking towards my grandfather, the only one who would have wanted her there, and he is speaking to her exclusively, his gaze downward, both a part of the group and apart. As for me, I still possessed the sweet and earnest face of an 11-year-old idealist. I was eager and kind and held my heart forward for all the world to see, just as I held my cat.
I came across this photo yesterday, among other odd finds, in the midst of “curating” my computer files, a seemingly interminable task. I was taking a break from the material accumulations I have yet to tackle: shoeboxes filled with old photos and negatives, stacks of letters and memorabilia in the downstairs closet, the” trunk of pain” in the garage. I thought that sorting through my digital mess would be a more manageable undertaking that might still yield a nice sense of accomplishment, and by and large, that’s been the case. But then there are scanned images like this one that pull me in and take me away to places I had no intention of revisiting and suddenly I am Alice in the rabbit hole, falling fifty-three years deep.
Bursting up from the tunnel I behold 2015, a tricky year in its almost-over stage, and it’s one day after Winter Solstice, with a drizzly kind of rain — light and straight-down– no wind. It’s so oddly still that at times the droplets seem to hover in the air like mist, but now and then there’s a lemon slice of sudden sunlight. The road is shining like a silver ribbon. There are rainbows. ‘Tis the season.
And of course it’s a mixed bag, crammed as full with yearning as it is with festivity, and terribly hard for some. But when I choose to move beyond the loss and sadness, which though very conspicuous is not the only outcome, I find an unexpected message within this old Christmas photo. If my father was sustained by dreams that failed to materialize, the days warmed by those dreams are not retracted, the disappointment does not diminish the comfort they brought while their promise and truth seemed viable. If my sister sang songs and held her palms in prayer, that happened, and nothing can extinguish the wonder of it. If my heart was kind and hopeful then, who is to say it changed?
I picture us casting away the burdens of sorrow and regret until nothing remains but gratitude and forgiveness, which are pure and clear and utterly weightless, and our souls are so light we can fly. The saga is unbound by linear terms, and it’s happening still, and it breathes within me, as real as my own pulse. For lack of a better term, I shall title it love. And it endures.