A Luminous Halo

"Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end." --Virginia Woolf

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Location: Springfield, Massachusetts, United States

Smith ’69, Purdue ’75. Anarchist; agnostic. Writer. Steward of the Pascal Emory house, an 1871 Second-Empire Victorian; of Sylvie, a 1974 Mercedes-Benz 450SL; and of Taz, a purebred Cockador who sets the standard for her breed. Happy enough for the present in Massachusetts, but always looking East.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Silly Sitcom Situation

I was awakened this morning by a phone call from someone I hadn't seen or heard from since 1965. This high school acquaintance, now living thousands of miles away, was back in town helping her mother organize a move to a kinder climate. A mutual friend (someone I have kept in touch with over the years), told her I was nearby, computer literate, and had a nice camera. My Long Lost Friend was desperate for a favor.

The all-too-common tensions with relatives were surfacing around this move, specifically over "stuff." Who gets what, in other words. In-laws were battling, Mom was getting extremely upset, and my friend (let's call her Susie to protect the innocent) was getting a lot of grief, despite her having taken a month-long hiatus from her high-powered career in order to help out.

Susie had been informed that all the family photographs were being shipped off, and she wasn't allowed to have any of them or even to make copies. Of course it was possible that tensions would abate, the rift would heal, and the recalcitrant in-law would graciously scan everything and send it on to her, but possession is nine-tenths of the law and Susie wasn't taking any chances. While she was in the same house as the photographs, she wanted to have copies made, just in case things got worse and not better.

Time was of the essence. The albums couldn't leave the house. Mom couldn't know what was up. Could I come right over with my camera? Our mutual friend (let's call her Anna) would pick me up within the hour.

Well, I'm easy. And always up for other people's harebrained schemes. Anna showed up with a camera of her own and we zipped over to Susie's. Susie let us in surreptitiously and went back to keeping Mom busy in the bedroom, sorting sweaters, while we tiptoed into the dining room to snap pictures of pictures.

Now, I distinctly remember the phrase "a couple of dozen pictures" uttered casually over the phone. In fact, there were a couple of dozen albums, plus several cartons of framed photographs. Unquestionably thousands of pictures all together.

Anna and I pulled out our cameras and, hearts racing and ears pricked for sounds of footsteps, a session of furtive and furious snapping began. Snatching framed items from the cartons, whispering frantically, we clicked and clicked, cursing the poor light, the reflecting glass, the curled edges, the stubbornly wrinkled plastic film on the album pages. We were boat people on a sinking ship, Cherokees about to leave on the Trail of Tears, pioneers whose oxen had given out, desperately trying to save the last, most precious mementos.

Before we could complete our task, Susie was back, pantomiming an exit. We had to leave, right that minute. We would take some albums with us and finish at home. She assembled a large moving box and filled it with albums, motioning Anna to help her lug it to the car. Obediently, I followed. Back in my kitchen, I spent the entire afternoon taking pictures, burning the results--close to a thousand pictures--onto CDs.

My daughter was indignant. You're too nice, Mom, she said. Dropping everything for someone who comes out of the woodwork and needs a favor. Not accepting money for a huge project which takes your professional expertise. Documenting artifacts is what you do for a living!

She's right, I suppose. Cataloging Judaica involves, among many other things, scanning or photographing every item. Sometimes I do large collections of community history. A commemorative booklet from a synagogue in the Andes, listing the names of all the founding families of a tiny outpost of Jewish immigrants, is invaluable material for scholars trying to reconstruct history, especially when so much and so many have been destroyed in the Holocaust or during other violent periods.

Perhaps because I do so much of this kind of work, I could sympathize with my friend. In one day, I followed her family history, from studio portraits of turn-of-the-century immigrants, to her mother's babyhood, to black-and-white snapshots from the forties and fifties, to Susie's school years captured on Instamatic and Polaroid color film, to orangey and degraded '70s shots of her early marriage and babies, to rolls of Kodachrome from her empty-nesting parents' vacations. I recognized the Rockport rocks where I vacationed as a kid, the same prom I attended in high school, her closest friends who were also my schoolmates. All I ask in return is a leisurely date for coffee or lunch before Susie flies out again so we can catch up--without any references to the current stressful situation--on what we've been doing for the last forty years. Putting captions on all those pictures, so to speak.

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Painting I Like

Spotted in the powder room of Nordstrom's in Connecticut. Note the black strip along the bottom edge. Big improvement over the usual flowers and seascapes.