Friday, July 17, 2009

The Beauty of the Tangible

My father as a toddler, in a photo taken by the Boyett Studio, 2008 Second Avenue, Birmingham, Alabama, about 1920.

While my sister was here, she swept our mother off to run some errands and I had time to sift through a box of old family photos as my father sat nearby and talked and dozed. In his mind that day, he was back in Alabama, where he was raised, and the stash of photos I found confirmed to him that his old home on Palmetto Drive, in Homewood, Alabama, was near enough for us to visit.

He talked about sneaking under his new house, when he was eight years old and the house was being built, and finding a neighbor girl had sneaked in behind him. He kissed Loula May that day, he said, though he knew he wasn't supposed to. He held up an old photo, and told me about the funny shoes he had to wear the day the photo was taken. The present is fading for Dad, but the past is very clear.

The short pants and the not-so-favorite shoes.

I wonder if generations to come will have the pleasure of holding old photos in their hands? So many of them now are saved as digital files, which is very convenient. But you can't hold a digital file between your fingers nor enjoy the tangible clues that a photo on paper provides.

Details from paper photo frames, surrounding circa 1920s photos of my father.

The old photos of Dad as a child are beautifully set in old graphic paper frames, and there are a number of them that catalogue his youth. Baby pictures, pictures of him at about age five, and then the pictures that show the growing maturity of a lively young boy and then a gangly young man.

One of them was in a frame behind glass and touching it reminded me that my grandfather Chapman was a very heavy smoker. The picture seemed obscured behind a haze and when I took the photo out to clean the glass I found it coated in a sticky layer of nicotine. My grandfather died of heart disease at the age of 57, just a few years before I was born. My father never spoke of him, until recently. Now his father's death brings tears, as if he is mourning a death that just happened.

We don't have any of these studio portraits of my mother. Her family was having a tougher time in Spokane, Washington, surviving the Great Depression and there was no extra money to spend on studio portraits of the the four Latta children. Dad's father, on the other hand, was more prosperous. Though he himself had achieved only a high school graduation certificate, he was already planning to send both his son and daughter to Auburn University, from which they both graduated.

Another photo, is one my father had taken during World War II when he was on leave from Ascension Island, at an "R and R" station in Recife, Brazil. It is a photo that was printed, as they sometimes where in those days, on a postcard. It wasn't sent that way, though, because it was not written on or postmarked. Holding it, you see the stamp of the processor, written in Portuguese on the back: "Foto Lux."

My father, on leave during World War II, in a photo taken in Brazil.

Here you see a dutiful son, away from home in a terrible war, having his picture taken on leave to send to his parents. His letter arrived and they took the photo from its envelope, and held it like a treasure. They had not seen him in two years. Carefully, they put it behind glass in a frame, where his father could see it as he paced, and smoked, and worried, and prayed that his son would come home from war safe and well.

My father dozed. I held the photo. Taken sixty-five years ago, it was now a treasure to me; for, though I will one day go to him, he will not come back to me again.

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