In Surreal Time

Published in June 2021 in the “Retrospect” issue of Caustic Frolic

One of my favorite photos is of our year-old daughter, standing looking over her shoulder from a foot-high galvanized tub on a bare cement floor, waiting to be bathed. It is the summer of 1959; we are pinched into the concrete-block toolshed I’d built a year earlier for practice. It has become our home while I — working longer hours every evening than at my job — labor to get our new house roofed, enclosed and heated before autumn cold makes the toolshed intolerable.

I smile every time I see that photo.

It tickles me several times a month, because several years ago that very daughter gave me a digital picture frame that displays, a minute at a time, almost 1,000 family photos she has loaded into it. Barely a foot tall, it perches atop a short chest of drawers, facing my recliner. I daily spend several hours in that comfy chair reading, watching TV and even munching meals, occasionally glancing up to see my life — more important, my family — parade before me in that frame, growing up in surreal time.

The frame swipes itself, and here she is, that refugee from a washtub, cradling a baby brother in her arms, although she herself is barely past babyhood.

Now here they both are with my wife, on a brick-paved patio with the quasi-Japanese house (sliding paper doors inside modern thermopane) framing them. Has another year passed? If I’ve found time to pave the patio, I must have nearly finished the Zen-stern interior. I am reminded that early cold drove us to move in when water ran only at the kitchen sink, and exited only at the toilet; it was another two weeks before all the plumbing was copasetic.

Now here are all four of us — I must have discovered a timer and tripod — as the kids set off for school from our new city home. We’ve rented out the Japanese house and its meadow, and have moved into the city to make common cause with Black neighbors. Their parents’ unabashed liberalism will impose subtle burdens on these kids over the years ahead. Daughter has begun to look unmistakably like mother.

Daughter and son are setting out to go door-to-door for Halloween treats — not in store-bought masks, but with face-paint, glued-on moustaches and bowler hats, a Chaplinesque disguise. Both seem taller than the day they set off for school; has it already been a year since then?

Our son, maybe seven or eight, is helping paint the garage. He wears a skullcap cleverly folded from a page of the newspaper whose editor I will soon become, a pattern I learned from the pressmen who put my words into readers’ hands. They daily wear such caps against ink-fog.

The four of us are on a Jamaican beach. Our daughter has surely begun high school; she is as tall as her mother — who looks more like an older sister. Both have bobbed hair; they are slightly sun-bleached brunettes. My own head shows touches of frost: In our society, save for movie stars and such, men don’t disguise the graying of their thatches. I actually prize my frost, which obscures that I am young for my growing responsibilities.

Four of us again, on a bicycle outing. Both the kids must now be in high school: Our daughter is now definitely taller than her mother, and our son nearly so. He has the same tall, lanky frame as the last three generations of Noel men.

He and I are camping on the shoulder of California’s High Sierra, our last father-and-son adventure. This photo brings a lump to my throat: He’s in high school; we will lose him just before his graduation.

Three of us are in the college stadium that is about to host graduating students and parents. Mother and daughter, are as prettily — no, beautifully — alike as peas in a pod. You could set my wife amidst the whole graduating class and anyone could pick out her daughter.

A new fourth member of our family is with us, posed by a wedding photographer. We entirely approve our daughter’s choice; they both teach in the all-Black city school from which my wife retired not long ago. Neither he nor his new father-in-law look to be matches for these bright, handsome women.

A family Christmas-letter photo six years later, with a new babe-in-arms, his grandparents fairly glowing with admiration. A new generation is compensation for growing older.

Back on that Jamaican beach, dawn still bourgeoning, a candid photo snapped by our daughter. Stooping slightly to reach a tiny hand, I take her son walking at the foamy fringe of a gentle surf. Later years’ photos will show that stroll to have become a vacation-morning tradition; it lasted until he decided he was too grown-up for handholding — as though that were for safety rather than sentiment.

Perhaps four years old in this next photo, he poses by a lawn sign advertising his grandmother’s (winning) campaign for the school board. He wears a too-big football jersey whose huge 17 must betoken some gridiron hero whose name I have long since forgotten.

His grandparents have taken him to ride a State Police horse. He has inherited the Noel men’s frame, and is growing like a weed.

, : Family Christmas-letter photos, the years passing like lightning. The later ones begin to show the diminishing luster of my wife’s eyes and the limited facial expressiveness that are the imprint of Alzheimer’s. It will take her from us in another five years; my eyes moisten again.

I had to beseech this last photo from my daughter, and add it to the picture frame’s thumb drive. My grandson has gotten through college while I’ve been savoring the initial collection. It is just a portrait, because the pandemic denied him Yale’s congregate boola-boola hoopla and formal solemnity.

There are two shelves of old-fashioned photo scrapbooks in my tiny living room, but they are cumbersome to handle, and gather dust. This picture frame is their successor, an electronic gadget that compresses time, nudging me every day and prompting memory. My progeny grow up, and I grow older.

Everyone ought to have one.

-End-

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