Drooling on the Pillow

Monday, May 16, 2005

Thank You and Good Night 

This is a true story. It sounds for all the world like a chick flick, but it happened exactly this way.

I must have been seven or eight years old. We lived in Tarentum, a little town on the Allegheny about twenty miles up from Pittsburgh. It was my father's home town.

He was a chiropractor at the time. He did a lot of things in his time, but for a few years there he was a bone-breaker. And a good one. I haven't spoken to him in more than twenty years so there's quite a salad of issues there, but I have to admit, when it came to chiropractics, he knew what he was doing.

About a block away I had an aunt, or she might have been my father's aunt, or more likely second cousin, but she was called Aunt Mid. She ran a beauty shop out of her house, converted from a closed-in porch. She would give me all her old equipment when she was done with it which was loaded with tubes, blowers, wires and dials and I would make space ships with the parts. Another aunt, one generation farther back, lived in the same house and she loved to sun-bathe nude in the grape arbor in the back yard. I loved to cut through that yard to my friend's house on the next block and there's a few images there I've been trying to get rid of for all my life.

The third woman who lived in that house was the only one whose genealogical relationship I'm sure of; my father's grandmother on his father's side. This was around 1955 and she was in her late nineties so she was almost certainly born during the Civil War.

Three old ladies with paper skin living in an enormous house on a cobblestone street. I spent some time in the beauty shop as Aunt Mid watched me while my mother was downtown shopping, but further back into the house I seldom ventured. It was as Victorian as Prince Albert's shorts.

So one day my mother gets off the phone and says that Aunt Mid wants to see me. When I get there Aunt Mid takes me into the sitting room where my greatgrandmother is perched with an enormous book in her lap. She pats the horsehair sofa next to her, and, as Aunt Mid brings a tray of tea, she opens up the book and starts showing me pictures.

When I was a kid I loved three things; baseball, maps and old pictures. Even today if there was a cable channel with only old film stock I'd watch it all the time. I don't know why, but the moments taken from lives and places that are irrevocably gone made me burn with something. They looked so real, but they couldn't be because they didn't exist anymore. It was something about the difference between what having their picture taken meant to them and looking at the pictures meant to me. For them it was stopping life for a moment to put it in their pocket; for me it was rummaging through the pockets of clothes stored in the attic. I was alive. They weren't. The sun was shining, the water gurgled. But it was gone.

She took me through every picture telling me who the people were, where it was taken and the eventual fates of every person in the pictures. Summers on the lake, on the shore, in the mountains. Handsome men, full of themselves and wiseacre boys looking for trouble. Girls dressed up for a party or putting on theatricals on the lawn. Some of the boys died in The War and I guess she must have been talking about WWI, although it certainly could have been the Spanish War. Train trips. A college graduation picture with about fifteen women.

When we got to the end of the book she closed it and had Aunt Mid replace it on the top shelf and I went home.

That summer she called me over every few days and we'd have tea and look at another album. I started to recognize faces and remember relationships and that just knocked her out. She'd call in Aunt Mid, point to a face and ask me "Who is that?" And I'd say, "That's your daughter Mary's first boyfriend. Charlie." And they'd clap and laugh like I was a chimp with a yo-yo.

At some point we got to the bottom shelf and then the last album and the last picture. She patted my hand and sent me home and died a couple of days later.

I sure wish I knew what happened to the albums as I still have a few dozen of those images in my head. They were my family and the people that knew them and, aside from the pictures I remember, now they really are gone.
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