Photo Credit: bgblogging
—The basis of a later development; the first stage of growth
The photograph shows my father and me on a certain late afternoon in early spring. It is a small photo, unframed, with the rounded corners and slightly nubbled surface common to late seventies Kodak prints. In the photo, I am twelve—this is long before I’ve stopped eating and my father has started smoking again. In the photo, one of the last of us together before adolescence, I am still his little girl.
Our neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. Edward Morris, are English, and they have invited us for tea. In honor of this respite from a usual drowsy Sunday, my mother has asked my father and me to pose for a photo before setting out. The perfect backdrop is just outside our front door, beside the clustered birches whose trunks splay gently as flowers in a long thin vase. I have dressed for the occasion in a puffy-sleeved T-shirt, soft as kitten fur and the color of the sky, and a blue patchwork skirt that inflates like a bell when I twirl in place and drops, when I come to a dizzying halt, almost to the tops of the white knee socks pulled taut up my skinny legs. My hair in its shaggy new Dorothy Hamill wedge is too short for my mother to tug into the ribboned braids of my childhood, and the warm breeze that teases through it feels like freedom itself.
Beside me on the soft grass my father stands tall and proud, and his cheeks and his thick grey hair are both full. He leans towards me just a little, his right arm tucked around me and pulling me close. He is wearing a light gray suit and his best wide tie, and the crease down the length of his pants legs is ruler straight. I press easily against his side, my body echoing the soft bend of one slim birch, the top of my head tucked into the space between his cheek and shoulder. My mother squints at us from behind her viewfinder. “Yoo-hoo!” she calls. “Okay—smile!” But we are already smiling when she asks.
After she snaps the photograph, we will walk three houses up the dead-end street to the Morrises’, my mother and my father strolling arm in arm and I darting first ahead, then behind, orbiting them like a small satellite. I will sit up straight in the curved wicker chair in my neighbors’ manicured backyard, and Edward Morris, my host, will kneel before me like a knight. “When you are seventeen,” he will say, “you’ll be a heartbreaker.” Perhaps my parents will cheer—I don’t remember—when he presents me a lemonade like an offering, in a glass slick with condensation from the ice.
And he is right, my neighbor, for when I am seventeen I will be beautiful—as youth and health are always beautiful—for a moment, before the gaping future sends me shrinking back into myself, my skin drawn safely tight across ribcage and thigh, the bones of my hips jutting out like hands cupping the rim of an empty bowl. Seventeen will be the year my mother alternately screeches and pleads, standing with clenched fists in the open doorway of my bedroom where I sit cross-legged and unmoved on my bed. The year my father drifts back and forth like a shadow between basement workshop and carriage-house studio, silently chain-smoking the thin brown Marlboros he’d given up in exchange for my pacifier when I was three. He will move the photograph we’d posed for on that spring afternoon to the standing piano in the living room, and prop it against the pigtailed plaster bust for which I don’t remember posing when I was four. It must have taken my father days of quick work, deftly layering the thin white layers into my round-cheeked likeness during the brief moments I would consent to sit still. Now he will return from his studio with a new sculpture wrapped in a soft blanket, two separate figures carved from two distinct woods. The arms of the taller one will encircle its huddled companion. “Let Me Be Your Shelter,” my father will call it, setting it on the end of the coffee table where I will try to not look.
When I am twenty-eight I will greet the Morrises as I accompany my mother on a slow afternoon stroll past their house. My father, his wasting body unbalanced now by the twitching betrayals of Parkinsons, will not join us. My old neighbors will pull to a stop beside their driveway on the quiet street and I will lean into the open window of their chugging sedan and exchange the usual courtesies. Monica Morris will have grown frail and drawn. Her head, bald from chemo, will be covered by a false cap of gray curls. Beside her in the passenger seat, her husband Edward will be a withered gnome, peering at me dully and without recognition.
When I am thirty-six and my father has been dead for one day, I will tear through my mother’s house in search of the photograph, through rooms maddeningly full of his presence. The piano on which I’d played Chopin, Beethoven, Mendelssohn—the full repertoire of a young girl’s heart—will be long gone, sold by my mother to make room for a decorative gas fireplace that gives off the illusion of heat. The bust, relocated to the top of the wicker buffet, will have no familiar photo propped against it.
I will ransack the places where my father lived. I will paw through the detritus in the china bowl on the onyx slab coffee table, uprooting toenail clippings and capless ballpoints and paper clips and snippets of thread. I will topple the stacks of books on the floor by his armchair and scatter half-completed Dell crossword puzzle books and old TV Guides with sketches inked into the margins of each page. I will pull open the sticking cabinet beneath the black-and-white Zenith before which we’d held rapt Saturday communion with the grainy wrestlers of the WWF. I will sift through the shopping lists and scraps of paper under the pillbox on the kitchen table beside his empty chair. I will be undone by the upturned toes and the velcro straps of his sneakers. I will climb the steps to my room in defeat and sink down at a desk littered with his pens. But I will not find the photo. Such a small thing, really, to be unable to find, to be unable to accept as lost.
And then, in an open cardboard box of my father’s belongings beneath my vanity, I find it. I find it. It is pressed like a flower into the tissue-thin pages of the Bicentennial World Almanac—I lift up the book and the pages flip open and there it is. I pull it gently free from the accumulated facts of this single year and hold it in my cupped hands. Regret is vertigo. I want it back, this moment, when the future is unwritten and I am unformed, anlage, shivering with the full potential of a seed.
I keep the photograph on my desk now, propped against a ceramic lamp that my father made when he was forty-three, the age that I am as I write. The vivid spring grass has blanched to the flat green of fall and my T-shirt to the color of a thinly overcast sky. The birches are fragile as twigs, their bark not yet peeling in the thin layers that in their maturity will make it seem as though they are continually shedding old skin. The moment though—the moment is always the same. It is a certain late afternoon in early spring. I am a very young twelve. Beside me, before the gently arching trees, my father is tall and healthy and proud, and I lean easily against him, my head resting on his shoulder—if I straighten, I will be almost as tall as him. But in this moment I do not straighten. In this moment I lean tight against my daddy, and he pulls me close to his side, and we look right at the camera, and my mother does not have to prompt us to smile.
Agnieszka Stachura’s work has appeared in Tiny Lights, Funny Times, Swink, Ghoti Magazine, and is forthcoming in Passages North. Email: ltobin[at]nc.rr.com