[Once again, the folks at Red Room have pitched another challenge to its members and I've responded with the following piece.]
Our precious eyes frame the world. Light enters, infused with information about objects and the space they occupy. The information is narrowed down, focused by the lens, which then beams the light onto photoreceptive cells glued together in the retina at the back of the eye, where the light is then transformed into neuronal signals, which turn them into neural impulses that flash in microseconds through the gloriously tangled byways of our brains, all the way back to the cerebral cortex at the rear.
So, we see all the way from the back of our skulls, as though from the rear upper balcony of a movie house. (Though miraculous, the complexity is said to be an argument, against God, who didn't get His degree in engineering from MIT).
The exact edges in which our eyes frame the world are elusive. The eye sockets mark the boundaries poorly. There’s no definite proscenium, sill, sharp edge, or corner around the mouths of those shining caves. The world beyond simply fades, drifts away, indistinct, indefinable, a home to sly ghosts or thuggish demons, leaping, lunging, slipping, sliding.
If I put my finger at the back of my head and move it around to the front, I can't even pinpoint the spot where it enters my visual frame. It’s simply more and more "there" as I pull it around to the front and my eyes can focus on it. Hold that for too long and I look like a cross-eyed moron: “Gosh! Look! I have a finger!”
The focus is never definite enough. Most of what we see fades to be forgotten only to return, some say, in those final moments when we race toward death, crossing out of our little band of light into darkness.
So it is that we make pictures and, nowadays, photos, film and video to fix those moments. We frame a section of the world and corral it for as long as Life permits, to stop time, freeze it, box it up. We make pictures to confirm memories, as evidence of the actuality of people and events, though, they're by no means entirely reliable (in part because of the framing itself). Mostly, I believe, we create pictures to enhance life.
Pictures convey a fixed, but only virtual, immortality. When I look at photos from my past--or even motion pictures--I may playfully and vainly imagine that the human figures (including myself) within still retain some glimmer of awareness, though I also know--or think I know--they don't. Cary Grant will never let go of Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday; William Holden and his gang will never see wisdom and walk away from the final bloodbath in The Wild Bunch; nor will Laurel and Hardy ever--thank God--grow brains. Humans in photos, both still and moving, never look about and cry "I'm alive!" in wonder and then wander out of their prison. There they are, butterflies laid in flat, papery (or plastic) amber, mirror images in silver nitrate.
Now look at this blurry black-and-white photo, a sharp, definite frame within an indefinite frame. We’re actually peering through a kind of keyhole, made by the camera lens, then the picture frames, wood, then paper.
What can we say for sure about it? A little girl, looking maybe like Shirley Temple, stands on the second step of a stoop of a house. A bow struggles to fly like a huge moth from her thick wavy hair. She’s being partially embraced by very tall man, his thatch of white, silver, or blond hair capped and parted on his head, his face a shadow, his spectacularly long legs branching almost intrusively at the lens. Both their faces are shadowed and blurry, but love seems as plain as daylight.
Are they posed on back steps or front steps? Can’t quite tell, though the railing behind indicates it may be a back porch. It's a sunny day; given the rich blur of foliage, maybe spring, or late summer. We know nothing about the building next door beyond its slatted slides. Probably a neighbor's.
To you, a stranger, the world beyond the frame is completely unknown. To me, the one with the photo on the bookcase, there are facts I know, but only vaguely, second hand. We can use our imaginations, make guesses, even engage in that writing exercise of making up a story.
But I’ll offer a few bare filtered facts that show how little you and I both see, facts filtered, and told years ago, meaning they’ve been filtered yet again.
The tall man with the long legs is my mother's father, dead for 75 years now. In fact, he apparently passed not long after the photo was taken, nearly 20 years before I was born. The little girl I'm not sure of, so I’ll change her name. In all the time I knew her, I addressed her as "Aunt Grace." She was much younger than my mother, younger than my "Aunt Sarah," "Aunt Gladys," and "Uncle Bob."
The photo was pulled from hiding sometime in the 1980s (I forget how). One afternoon, shortly after a copy was given to me, my mother said, "I've got something to tell you. Aunt Grace is not your aunt. Grace is Aunt Sarah's daughter. Grace is actually your cousin."
She went on to tell me that sometime in the late 1920s, Aunt Sarah was attending a teaching school somewhere in Illinois, when one night, she disappeared. A search ensued. A week later, Sarah showed up pregnant and weeping on the front stoop of a stranger's house (Another picture planted itself in my mind, of Sarah crouched on the steps in a long-ragged dress and weeping into her thin, folded arms, on a rainy night, but I don’t know at all if it was like that). Who the father was remains unknown, at least to me.
My mother and her siblings were born and raised in the small town of Gladstone, Upper Michigan in the early 1900s. Even by current Religious Right standards, it's hard to grasp how conformist and conservative that world was. My grandmother Ethel was a stern, perfectly abstemious Presbyterian, her husband Hugh, a towering, bull-tempered Scot, scornful of religion, a raving anti-Catholic, and employee of the Soo Line Railroad. (What is called a “character.” Meaning, as my mother said, that he was a very hard man to be married to and to have as a father.)
The news of formerly Aunt Grace's illegitimacy would have been a horrible scandal in a small Protestant U.P. town, a source of grim and eternal shame: averted eyes at church and store and all that comes with small town shame, a damp blanket that's only pulled away with the generations.
So, this is what my grandparents did. Ethel took a train all the way down to Illinois and reappeared with a brand-new baby bundled in her arms. She and Hugh told everyone that the brand new baby was theirs. Just like that, Ethel had given birth, like a miracle out of a manger.
On the surface, according to my mother, everyone in town accepted this. Facing powder-keg, six-foot-four Hugh, discretion was no doubt the better part of commentary. We can safely say the word "bastard" was secretly bandied about in some pious homes. It's nice to think more simply nodded and said "fine" thinking "That could have been me," "That was me," or "Let God make the call." Whether Cousin Grace ever knew the facts behind her parentage, I have no idea.
Even more than what lies beyond the picture frame, we know even less what's in the frame of the heart, especially the hearts of those outside the frame of the photo.
Ethel and Hugh raised Grace together, until one day in 1935 when Hugh, suffering from stomach cancer, got up from the lunch table, saying "I'm tired." Then he lay down on the living room couch and died.
And so, there's always more to the picture, another world beyond the frame. That’s more than a man sheltering a little girl, saying “She’s my daughter and I love her.” A whole world, though lost to us, somehow still teems around this photograph and strands of it run through it. What's outside the frame we can’t really know. But it seems we can never really say that there's "nothing.”
Copyright 2011 by Thomas Burchfield
Photo by author.
Thomas Burchfield has recently completed his 1920s gangster thriller Butchertown. He can be friended on Facebook, followed on Twitter, and read at Goodreads. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.