Friday, March 02, 2007

Smile for the camera

The album which keeps my baby photographs is worn and grimy with the years - a bit like me. It is a pale and padded plastic blue with white buttons; held whole with tape that has begun to curl and a sorry silk tassel whose burlesque days are through. When you open it, joints creak and it sighs a little. The inside cover, once virgin cream, is now a rusting and unpleasant brown, as if one day, I snatched it from a hearth where it was smouldering.

Many of its flattened subjects hold me tight in there and once loved me. Some still do. But others I could not keep by me: a father, two grandmothers, godmother, godfather, a curly-haired aunty and her cross-legged son. The blood list lost, goes on. Then, they were mine and I clutched their fingers. Now, they are mine only in memories and an album - for as long as they smile "Cheese" and the page is open.

I think the album sad, though it show-cases a content and lace-dressed child. Perhaps the thought that these days have come and gone, arrives too soon for me. On the very first page, a suited man relaxes, leaning against the rails on the windy prom at Blackpool; a cigarette between his fingers. You can only lean so long. Look again, he is sitting down on a wooden bench, my mother's leather handbag and a parcel beside him. The snaps are of my father who should perhaps have tossed the cigarette into the cold black and white sea behind him. My mother tells me I was six weeks old when she left with him for three or four days in Blackpool. Her husband - the first - my brand new father, had not confessed to coughing blood but pleaded for a seaside break. "I didn't want to leave you," she tells me, "but I knew he wasn't well and so we went."

One year and eight snap-filled pages later, the cigarette has quite gone out, the coughing stopped and there is no more suited man. Instead, another trip this time to Ireland; the camera shutter closes on a young matron in a tilted, black straw hat with her solemn fat-faced babe. My widow-weeded mother holds me forever in her arms in front of roses, river, bridge and church. He may be gone but I am her victory over death, a triumph in pantaloons and bonnet. I think she may be sad then. I'm sure she is, as she carries me around with her, a memory of him, until, in the way of things, she meets another kindly father man, marries him and smiles again.

Here is the confusion. I opened the album up because twice lately, I have had the sensation as I looked at my own daughter, that I was looking at myself. I never felt that with the boys. My sons are my lions; terrorsome and grand. See how they go; march and strut and shout. But the other day, as I gazed at my baby standing proud in the grass, deciding should she walk or not, I felt: "That's me. I'm looking at myself". Again today, I held her in my arms at the bathroom sink, glanced up at the mirror and thought again: "That baby in my arms. That's me." So I dug out this relic of the past to see if my baby-self had escaped her black sugar-paper prison. But no, she was still there, safe in her mother's arms.

10 comments:

Leah said...

I am new to your blog having read about it a few weeks ago in the Sunday Times. It's taken me that long to read from the start, as I started mid-blog and felt I was missing something. It was like starting a book on chapter 5 so I went to the beginning and have very much enjoyed reading your blog. I have now a blog bookmark!

I have a 5 month old son, and in him I see me. The scary thing is, since having my son I now see my mother in me!!!

rilly super said...

hello wife, London calling! using the wi-fi at my husband's 'local' the Admiral Duncan - just here for the weekend , so many men yet so little time! You seem very thoughtful today, I'm sure now you are famous you could get on that show 'who do you think you are'. People often say that to me you know, well, they just say the name of the show so I presume they mean I should go in a family tree TV show, but I'm not well known enough..Hope you have a good weekend, it'll all be alright in the end you know - all the best

actualry said...

How humdrum our comments must seem next to this blog, your words so carefully crafted to convey feelings so deeply felt. I come back to your blog for the glimpses of a shared experience, though mine so many years ago in another country. I come back with you and remember vividly the isolation, the sheer exhaustion from going solo in the face of the kids' 24 by 7 neediness! That's not so unusual to read, I guess, though your rendering of the absurd parts often makes me laugh out loud. No, the reason I come back is it's so astonishing to find captured the (occasional) poetry and beauty of this life I used to live. I thought it was my secret.

fleetpete said...

that's touching. It resonates with what I've been thinking about recently. Looking at sepia photographs of great grandparents / granduncles / grand aunts. Clad in their Victorian finest (What a big deal it must have been to go to the photographer's studio). Anyone in the family who would have known anything about them is now gone. They have such an air of mystery, what sort of people were they, what would they have thought of our world. Sorry - that's all a bit morbid for a Saturday morning - but you started it!

wife in the north said...

re actualry: what a lovely message. I do think there is strength in knowing you share an experience.

debio said...

Although I only have one daughter I can relate totally to all you write about your troops! My daughter is now 12, but her father was a 'workaway' husband and I lived in deep, deep countryside so the isolation can feel overwhelming. Now embarking on pastures new in Gulf State and at different stage with my offspring. You have been the final encouragement to 'blog'! See www.landofsand-debio.blogspot.com for what awaits you....

Calamity Jane said...

WITN - That was a beautiful piece. I could clearly see your family in your words. And now I have a tear in my eye because some of it is pretty close to home.

Rare Breed said...

Oh Wifey, I am bombarded by often unwelcome messages on the radio, from my children, friends, colleagues that smoking is bad for me and will, in time be the death of me.

Unwelcome because I know all this. Not yours however, not only was it not meant for me, not yours because it wasn't a message it was a poignant memory. Maybe it will be the kick start to get my sorry act into gear - before my children look at back at curled paged photoalbums showing their children Grandmother who sadly can't sit them on her knee and tell them funny stories of the mishaps that their parents got up to as children.

Thank you Wifey!

wife in the north said...

re rare breed: I wouldn't dream of preaching to you. I miss the father I never knew though.

aminah said...

That is such a beautiful post. It´s a relief to find your blog...gorgeous descriptions and very touching. Thankyou. aminah