Wednesday, April 1, 2009
So, I'm going to California. I'm twenty. Why am I going? Because I'm young and I can.
That's not a very good reason, as it turns out, but I'm going anyway.
But before I go, I'm going home for a visit. My family life is pretty straightforward at this point. I'm the first to leave home and go away to college and stay there. So, I'm something of a golden boy for certain younger siblings. My younger sister Emily, who is also my god-child, always referred to my absence from her life a result of my being at "far-far-away-school." Which was true. After graduating high school, I left. I went as far as I could. To the University of Missouri-Columbia, thinking I wanted to be a journalist. I'd change my mind within a couple of months--but the fact remained that I left and didn't come back. Except for short visits.
It wasn't because I wanted necessarily to be away. I wanted to, well, be. And my little sister Emily figured into my thinking and feeling about this a great deal, as it turned out. But everything's hindsight, so it's hard to tell how forward thinking I was then versus how backward thinking I am now.
In any event, I resolved to accept an invitation to work in Los Angeles one summer. As I said, I was 20 at the time. But I couldn't just leave from Dallas and go. I wanted to visit home first.
I met and fell in love with a girl later who would receive a picture of me and my little sisters outside a laundry-mat during this visit home. I remember I wrote to her on the back of that picture--me and my sisters Emily, Linda and Kate, with my Mom's laundry stacked rather neatly inside the window on a table behind us, as we stood outside this South Texas laundry-mat--"Remember me" Huh. I gave her a picture of a much older brother cradling his adorable sisters in the hope that she would see that he could love innocence. But I really didn't know then what that meant at all. I do now--so the picture only imaged a kind of hope.
She married me anyway.
But, as I say, I traveled home before moving to Pasadena, California, and spent some time with the family. I loved all of them dearly. Still do. Differently. Time passes. He's a gentleman and a bastard at the same time. Stuff happens and still he marches. Sometimes steps on stuff.
But, I was home and was trying to steel myself for my very first adventure. Sure, I had left home to go make my way in the world at college--but, really, that's just one cocoon to another, you know? And I cried the first three weeks then--huddled in a phone booth in the basement of my dorm and trying to stifle my shame on the phone with my Mom or Dad during those days, so homesick I could taste the vitriol in my mouth when I hung up the phone. My rebellion had been replaced by a huge wave of sentiment, the taste of which I loathed and savored at the same time. Life is paradox--even when we have no sophistication.
But now I was embarking on a trip that would take me, by car, from deep South Texas to Los Angeles , California. When we got to El Paso, we were half-way there. Wow. For the first time I began to understand distance. Not because it is tedious but because it is, in itself, as Einstein came to realize, miraculous. Some gang-banger got shot to death in El Paso as I was passing through. That's a kind of miracle. They make movies about such happenstance in Hollywood--and that's where I was heading.
But before I left I searched for some pictures. I wanted to take some with me. And, as I said, I was planning on falling in love with a girl, so I needed a history. I didn't really think I'd meet her in L.A., but I knew I'd meet her someday. I wanted to give her something. Somehow.
So, I looked through a shoe-box.
There were all kinds of pictures there. There were pictures of me and my siblings from days in the '70's. With our buck teeth and pure innocence. Before braces but not before stupid clothes and bell-bottomed pants. Knit shirts and shag hair-cuts. In one picture my sister Laura stares out with her hands crossed upon her breast. Like what she will look like in her coffin. Strange and beautiful and scary. My youngest brother Rob too fat for his "one-zee." He's a contented Buddha with his whole life before him. He has no idea that he will be a fireman. But he will be a hero--and yet in the picture he's just a fat boy with everything in front of him.
So, I'm rooting through and I find a picture of my little sister Linda. It's one I took before leaving for college. She was perhaps 6 or 7 at the time. She's posing (for me) with some dog we had. I have no name for this dog. He's shaggy and dirty--like an unkempt Benji. One of the unnumbered strays we took care of in those days. She's not really smiling. But she's not sad either. She's just her. She's just--well, authentically Linda. I can't explain it well, but I love the picture and I want to take it to California. I don't know what awaits me there--there are dangers. I fear Pinocchio's 'Island of Lost Boys' there. I want her picture to ground me. I remove it from the box.
Then I find another picture. It's of my mother. It's black and white. She's cradling a dog too--it's a Boxer. She's on a beach. I know it must be the Cape. I wonder if the Boxer is the same as one in a picture of me from Indiana I saw once. I figure it can't be. I set this picture next to the one of Linda.
I've never considered Linda to resemble my mother--and yet they are clearly of the same stock. There's no denying it, despite the difference in hair and skin color and tone. My mother, in my imagination, has no freckles. Linda is scored with with them. But there's something in the expression of each that teaches me, inarticulately, a certain something about what it means to be person.
There they are, next to each other. The one in color, taken in the '80's, of my little sister. The other, in black-and-white, of my mother, taken by someone to whom I must be related but whose name I do not know. She looks fourteen--but there's no way to tell. Back in the 1950's, perhaps, dressed in a way that made them seem more mature. A white cotton blouse and clam-diggers, in the sand without shoes.
My mother looks out at the world--a young girl. All of her life ahead of her. The life that has now unfolded--married at 19. A first child at 20. And then nine children later and an oldest son ready to make his way West.
More importantly, they were people in their own right. I could see it in their eyes. Each with an entire life ahead of them, Demeter and Persephone before I'd even met them.
Mother and daughter and, with the pictures side by side, for the first time, I recognized that they looked alike. How strange. I saw in that moment the anguish of the Mother whose daughter will someday become a woman, of whom Zeus himself would brood upon, as Hesiod wrote.
What a miracle. What a miracle they each were. Separate and yet the same.
And had I ever been an Orpheus to rescue either from the Pomegranate seed? Could I ever be?
I cannot quite articulate the miracle of another individual except to say that it gives me hope. That there is such beauty in the world. That there is such beauty in the world.
It makes you understand not Achilles--but perhaps Odysseus or Aeneas. Perhaps. Definitely, Dante. Yes. Dante. Every man hopes for a Beatrice. We are all introduced to them. Few of us recognize them when we see them.
I love Dante.
(image: (c) H. Blairman & Sons, bas-relief by Ellen Mary Rope, 1899)