These Children

These children I talked about Monday: somebody said they look like they all wanted i-Pods instead of the toys they are holding. Funny!

I just wish I could find the actual photo of them because these two images here are from a charcoal based upon a tiny snapshot from 1910. Thus it is not a photograph of nameless children like you’d pluck from a bin and buy for a dollar at some antique store. These were unique and particular creatures, as we all are.

Take this dubious-looking one with the old telephone. Some 40 years after this picture was taken she caught that old train bound for Conception mere moments before the last egg dropped down her tubes to make her my mom. “The oldest mother in America,” she called herself, though she didn’t seem old to us kids.

Only kind of strong.

Only kind of kick-ass, in the nicest possible way.

Still, she couldn’t spank us to save her life. Only once did she start after us with a hairbrush to tan our hides. Then she saw herself, a woman 50 chasing a couple of primary school kids around a table. “You little hooligans!” she cried, then sat down and gave herself over to laughter.

That’s what she did all her life with her brothers and sisters: she laughed. They all laughed, all the time.

The boy on the left was the funniest one, though he wasn’t trying to be funny when he signed his letter to Santa that year “Your friend James, a fat six-year-old boy.” He was just offering Santa the description. I remember him making his siblings laugh until they cried when they were all in their 60s and he began recalling memories from the nineteen-teens. “It was one of those Saturdays when Pa took us all to that doctor in East Boston to have our nostrils cleaned out,” he was saying and how his siblings roared. We all did. (But did their father really do that? Possibly. Dramatic interventions of a health-restoring sort were huge at the start of the last century as far as I can tell from my reading. According to this dad’s diaries, every time anybody sneezed it was enemas all around.)

And this seated child, the one with the broad cheeks holding the train?

He was sweetness itself. When my mother started kindergarten in 1912, he could just imagine how scared she would be and so went clear to the edge of the Boy’s side of the schoolyard, himself a little first grader, and held her hand all through Recess.

He came and lived with my mother and aunt for a while when Alzheimer’s was just beginning to trip him up. He kept going to the hall closet to fetch his hat and start out the door. “Rob, where are you going?” his alarmed sisters would ask. “Down to the courthouse to argue a case of course,” he would reply mildly. He had been a lawyer earlier in life, when he was a dead ringer for To Kill a Mockingbird’s Atticus Finch as played by Gregory Peck.

In the actual snapshot, which I promise I will look for, there were five children smiling in front of the tree. The artist son chose not to portray them, even though he did not know as he chose that they were the cousins; that they were not the people from whom he is himself descended.

I guess that’s enough to say for now. If I start on how their young mother had just died the previous summer I will surely go on too long. That’s the difference between the writer and the artist maybe. The writer can really empty the dictionary on an idea, and still bring you no closer to understanding it. With the artist though, it’s another way.

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