Hashtag Throwback Thursday. Here is a photograph of my childhood friend, Kelly Shea, circa 1979. Kelly Shea lived down the block from me. She was my constant companion and daily playmate until someone at school cruelly chanted that we were sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-Ging. After which, we proceeded to politely nod to each other as we passed each other in the street. Kelly Shea came from a large Irish family. Her father was a teacher. He was white-haired and wore button downs and khakis. She was blue eyes and milk white skin. Kelly Shea, aged 8, was a good reader but not the best pupil. By this I simply mean that she tended to daydream in class, routinely getting called on and fumbling out of her reverie to flip pages or stare at the ceiling hoping for an answer. She had assiduously begun going to the movies and seemed to be lost in the moving pictures even after they stopped. She was a great fan of the French New Wave, and sacrificed milk at lunch and gum at the corner store to save her allowance for tickets. She smoked at 9 and I would see her sitting on a guardrail after school, lazily puffing away while reading the French Magazine Les Cahiers du Cinema. I had no idea she could read French. She told me about Antoine Doinel, the fictional character created by French film director Francois Truffaut. It was cold and the smoke from her cigarette hung heavily around us as she spoke. It was autumn and the ground was a sponge. She pressed her maryjane’s into the soggy ground, concentrated on the telling. The 14-year-old Doinel, she told me, was a troubled Parisian boy who skips school, eventually turning to street life and petty crime in response to neglect at home by his parents. Towards the end of the film, he is sent to a reform school, from which he escapes for places unknown. Then she looked away from me for a moment. She turned her head into the direction of that unknown, going there herself. This was before I knew how language worked. Before I knew the phrase, is everything okay? Instead, I photographed her with an old Kodak Brownie that I had unearthed in the mountains of detritus in my basement which consisted of the physical memories of the lives my parents lived before having children and also of the pieces of our own childhood that we had surpassed. I snapped her picture looking down into the viewfinder. She moved three weeks later and I never saw my first true friend and daily companion again.
Hashtag throwback Thursday. This is not a photograph of me. It is a photograph of my father’s father who we called Poppy. He died when I was very young and I only have a few recollections of him, mostly from the time just before he died when he came to live with us. Imagine that. My parents had a three bedroom house with five young children and made a room out of the foyer for him. I remember him slight and stooped with creased trousers and a white shirt. He was short. It was summer. My father set up a lawn chair for him in the backyard and he sat there eating a piece of a fruit and looking at the leggy flowers. I remember him quiet and looking, his hands on the arms of the chair. I knew nothing about him, only that he was my Poppy and that he was old and sweet to me and that he held my hand in his big soft hand. I don’t remember his funeral, though I am sure I was there. My brothers and my sister, each in turn, as it is with age, have more memories than the next. It is through the photographs in our family album, and the stories, both theirs and my parents’, associated with those photographs, that I came to know him. I won’t go into the whole story, but the short of it is that when he was young in northern Italy, he broke his back carrying bricks up a ladder to his father who was a stonemason. When he healed, his father sent him to France to become a pastry chef. When I was older, I found his name on an Ellis Island ship manifest from 1912. He settled on the east side of Buffalo, New York and worked in a hotel downtown as their pastry chef. He saved his money and brought his wife over. My sister recalls that he had a beautiful garden, that he made wine. He had my father who had me. After he died, a go-to Halloween costume when we were young was his chef’s hat and white coat. It seems like every year one of my brother’s was a chef and then I was a chef. I had no idea why we had that hat and coat as he was long retired by the time I knew him briefly, but I liked being a chef. The whiteness of the funny coat, the tall poof of the hat. My mother would throw some flower on our faces and give us a bowl. I wonder if my parents saw a piece of him in us every Halloween. I like to think they did. I like to think that by becoming him once a year, we honored him and in turn the essence of who he was somehow became enmeshed with who we would become. His sense of adventure and resolve to be better, his kindness and love, his ability to make things, to watch things grow and be patient in difficult times. Last week in a phone call to my father we got to talking about death and he told me again the story about his mother’s death. It is a simple story and one of my favorites, and I think it is one of his too. I never knew my grandmother because she died before I was born, so I ask about her a lot because there might be something of her in me too. Anyways, this is the story. She went to lie down in bed because she wasn’t feeling well. She called out to her husband, to the person who was my Poppy. She said to him, I’m dying and I want you to hold my hand and he did. He held her hand in his delicate hands that had shaped and molded the doughs of puff pastries, canelés, cannoli’s, and croissants. The hand that later held my hand. He kissed her and she breathed her last breath and he held her hand.