I’ve lost track of how long ago I asked my sister whether she remembered a particular photo of me and a childhood friend. I could figure it out if I wanted to increase the guilt I feel for procrastinating on my promise to do something with our rag tag collection of family photos, but I don’t feel like it. She overnighted her portion of the collection to me at no small expense and I promised I’d do something with them.
To be honest, I have. I’ve scanned them, then scanned them again after realizing their new digital identities were so small I’d have to squint to recognize anyone in them. The originals are stacked in a shoebox organized to the best of my ability by processing date stamps and my mother’s felt tip pen notations. A file on an external hard drive is dedicated to the project and is partially filled, but I’ve done nothing with it for a year.
My sister would have had the project completed within a week. She’s good at that sort of thing, wasting no time before checking it off her list and moving on to the next item. I dawdle. I sift and I sort, the task interrupted by intermittent memories frozen in 50-year-old 3 ½ by 3 ½-inch white bordered squares. Most of the memories are laced with the nostalgia of childhood fun and games, of adventuresome play, and seemingly endless summer days. For me, much of this time is associated with a sense of freedom. We wandered, explored, and took risks that seemed harmless at the time; we climbed the tall Mediterranean Pines because they were there, crawled through dry storm drains on imagined quests, and foraged through the trash bins at the school, hoping to salvage something to play “teacher” with once back at home.
Wandering through streets in a village on a hot afternoon during siesta, climbing through the window of a house we thought was deserted, digging tunnels in mounds of powdery lime near a building under construction.
Playing near burning heaps of trash.
So many memories.
Inevitably, the memories become more complex. They involve the sting of a leather belt and accompanying welts. The stunning sensation of an unexpected slap against the side of my head. The sharp sting of a long finger wielded at any body part within reach when something had been done wrong. I was seven when it happened the first time. Abuse in one form or another continued until my early teens.
Not long ago, I asked my brother what he remembered. He said that as far as the beatings went, “When didn’t Leo beat us? At one point, I told myself I wasn’t going to cry anymore.”
I look at the three of us in the photo, aged nine, seven, and five. I examine the stretch of coastline, notice the shadow of our Volkswagen on the edge of the frame. If my unfocused mind’s scouring of the Spanish Costa del Sol on Google Maps is accurate, we were standing along the Mediterranean on the Carretera Nacional N-340 between Malaga and Salobreña where the old road hugs the sliver of space between the rocky hillsides and the shore. We were on our way to Granada and would soon leave the coast to cut northward, toward the scorching hot interior of Spain. Our outfits helped me remember the sequence of our trip to that point because we are wearing the same thing in later photos of Granada.
I remember that cotton fabric covered in bright strawberries. It wasn’t as light as the percale of a cotton sheet, but had some weight to it. My mother explained once that she had to purchase fabric in pre-measured quantities so my sister and I often wore matching outfits — the jumpers shown complete with bloomers. I had another dress made of the same fabric, but with a gathered skirt, short sleeves, and a belt at the waist she constructed of red and green strips of bias tape, intricately sewn together and knotted at each end. When I outgrew my clothes, my sister inherited them, so the strawberry fabric was around for a few years.
Our expressions are telling. My brother and sister are probably looking at our mother who is doing her best to encourage a smile from her seat in the car. This was always a challenge for my sister who was a moody child and who had very sensitive eyes. We all did, but hers were especially so. My brother was quick to smile and seemed perpetually happy–a boy of few words. I’m sure my step-father is taking the photo. I’m looking into the lens of the old brown Argus camera, trying to follow whatever direction I’ve been given, resigned to comply or else. I probably was in trouble for something.
Perhaps none of us wanted to get out of the car for a photo. Or maybe after being in the car so long on a sweltering summer day, inhaling the smoke from his endless chain of Pall Malls in such close proximity, legs sticking to vinyl seats, I was grumpy. Maybe we asked of my mother, one time too many, where he was going. We tended to do that.
When I think of it now, of course my step-father would consider such a question rude — especially when he could have been asked directly. Hey, Dad! Where are we going? Surely, five years after meeting and marrying a woman with three very young children, one might have expected we would be more accepting. Then again, he might have realized that at least two of the children were reluctant because they were simply afraid.
Being bold enough to ask him anything could garner an unpredictable physical response. Giving the wrong answer when he was helping with homework. Not doing something properly–like the dinner dishes, or daily house chores. Although my mother was capable of a few haphazard attempts at swatting the three of us when we were up to something in the backseat of the car, I don’t remember ever being afraid that her intent was to harm any of us. The opposite was true of my step-father. I believe he waited for us to fail.
I notice our hands in some of the photos and wonder what they convey. Parents want happy children in their photos. Pretty smiles. Enthusiasm. Not squinting eyes and tense fingers. Not lethargy. Acquiescence.
Perhaps they were arguing in the car. Five people in a Volkswagen Beetle on an extended vacation is enough to make anyone cranky. I know Leo wasn’t the most punctual human on the planet and that my mother is one of the most punctual. He probably slept in that day, perhaps drank too much the night before, and was dealing with a hangover. I could ask my mother, telling her it’s good exercise for her brain, but she’s not wired the way I am, and is able to forget whatever she wants to forget. It’s convenient. I remember far too much about everything in vivid detail.
The years that have passed are accumulating and at this point, I tend to remember what matters more than what doesn’t: summer days at the pool on base, holiday picnics and parties with my parents’ interesting friends, sleepovers with girlfriends, free-range summer nights playing until the street light went on. Nancy Drew and Dana Girls books read with a flash light in the dark.
Army ants in the vacant field behind our house.
Chalk drawings in the street out front.
When I look at our photos, each one presents far more that I’d like to remember and my procrastination explains itself.
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