Usually I don't use this blog to post bits of my own memoir, but I felt compelled to share this.
This very cottage my brother is in the process of selling, so I spent more time there this year than I have in years.
Writing from photographs is extremely powerful. I cannot promote it enough. It seems like such a simple thing to suggest, but still profound. Not just about the photograph. Put yourself back IN it.
Ironically, I can't find this photograph right now. As I wrote it during class, I didn't write from the actual photo in front of me. And now, as I go to post it, I cannot find it. But it is clear in my mind.
However, the photo above is about how old I was in the photo from the party.
It’s an annual event. Every July, the month before Bapa was born, we gather at the cottage. Sometimes I bring friends, as I have been doing all summer. Often there are chosen family there – mom’s best buddies from Kindergarten and college, and their kids, who are the closest things to cousins we think we have.
In one photograph, I am next to Bapa. He is shirtless and tiny, even though he was still only in his seventies. I am surprised at his slenderness, at how worn he looks. He will live another 18 years after this picture, but you wouldn’t know it by the image. He has his ever-famous cigarette – non-filter Pall Mall’s – suspended from between his middle and forefinger. The ash, as ever, is longer than what remains to smoke.
I am distracted by something in the distance, and not even looking at the camera. I have been running around in my favorite cotton blue dress, with an elastic bodice and ruffly but not fussy strap sleeves. I am gulping lemonade, likely a mix, from a plastic glass, and right in front, very close, is a newish Benji doll, collar and tag still on. To my right is my mother, Bapa’s daughter, also smoking, also squinting in the sun just as he is.
I am leaning on her, but it looks almost as if an accident – as if I stumbled, rather than hanging on her. But I know that I sometimes fell asleep with my head in her lap at restaurants, when we had a booth or bench seats.
Back to the party. The party isn’t really for Bapa. He doesn’t much care for kids of various ages scampering around the yard. We meet in July because then we can also do fourth of July. We climb the old apple tree and jump down, gather in the attic of the garage and sneak peeks at Playboys. There must be cake, but it gets mostly eaten by the mouths of babes. Adults sip at drinks in the early afternoon, and smoke all day and night. Fireflies pop up early, in the still-up sun, and mosquitos and spiders take turns biting us.
As a family, we meet in the yard after dark and begin with sparklers. These I can handle, even at six, and I squeal with delight as my dad or one of my two brothers lights one and hands it to me. I am afraid of the metal stem, afraid of the sparks, but I love the colors and how they light up the otherwise dark faces of myself, my family, our chosen semi-family around us. Adults are still so mysterious – they speak a foreign language that, while I am coming to understand all their letters and even some words, I cannot really grasp yet. And I don’t want to. All I want to grasp is sparklers, lemonade, Benji dolls, and occasionally, my dad’s arm to pull him over and show him a birdhouse I have constructed with an old bottle and a dowel.
We call it Bapa’s birthday party. After Dad dies, it fades as a summer event, as do all family gatherings. Anything outside Mom, Alex, David and me is too much for Mom to host or handle. We never did do holidays at Bapa’s in Chicago, but we met midway at Dad’s Mom’s house for Easter. TG and Xmas used to be at our house. Now Bapa just gives her money and sends us cards. He is getting older. Mom is a widow. Parties lose their zest.