The picture is of a very particular past. The photo is in black and white but there is no richness, no chiaroscuro. We know it is from decades ago. It is of such a quality to suggest it was done by a photographer of no skill and likely a camera of poor quality. It is just a picture of three girls and is perfunctory, negligent, like obligation or even resentment was involved. It is a shot with a lack of focus, perspective or even composition.
The three girls are standing too close for a pose. Even taking into account an inattentive or impatient photographer, no one would intentionally position them this way. They are clustered. The smallest one has lighter hair and appears to be petulant, irked perhaps by holding still for the picture and it seems she might break out of the pose and run to play. But at the moment of the photograph she stays tight to her sisters. The tallest of the girls is behind. She is mostly obscured by the other two but is a head taller. She looks at neither her sisters nor the camera but at some other point to her right. But her gaze is not attention but unfocused. She projects an uneasiness. The middle girl seems to be frowning in the direction of the youngest. It is hard to tell if her disapproval is directed as her sister or something else, but it is not a look that is free of cares.
The three sisters are in an outdoor space. Shrubs or weeds appear to their right. There is a light, just of camera. Is it dusk? While their clothes do not appear to be shabby, they don’t seem expensive either, nor especially well fitting. Behind them is a building clad in wooden clapboards, of varying shading, mottled, suggesting disrepair and lack of paint. The boards are narrow and go indifferent directions; both of these things characteristics of cheap construction. Because we know enough of their history, we know the kind of building this would likely be, one of the lower quality houses in a neighborhood of mostly workaday dwellings. The tightness of the shot and the lack of depth of field suggests a small space, a yard probably, and context leads us to conceive a space between buildings.
I never discussed the picture with them when they were alive. These are of course projections of my own.
My Aunt Marita was in a Catholic care facility. On my last visit, she spoke very little, mostly one word answers to my mundane and obligatory questions. She had in some pain that she declined to describe or locate. This was typical She bore the same weariness she had for years. She wasn’t really eating. But I felt none of these things limited her answers. We had come to accept her Catholic suicide. After trying to manage her health, her comfort, her mental state, we had come to the consensus that she just wanted to go. Her family was gone. She didn’t want a conversation; she didn’t want to say anything.
In a languid kind of way, I hectored her over the course of ninety minutes, asking the same 9 or 10 questions, thinking up new ways to ask them in hopes of getting a response other than yes, no and I’m fine. And during that time she slipped just once. I asked her some version of the question can I get you something, to which she replied ‘peace of mind.’ I tried get her to elaborate, gently asking what she meant by it, about what would give her peace of mind, suggesting her conscience should be clear, even chiding her with assertions that she really hadn’t treated me that badly. She never responded to any of it and after revisiting it a few time, I let it go.
I left her with the same parting words, “I’ll see you in a couple of days,” pretty much knowing I wouldn’t. Her words surprised and made me want to blame the Catholic Church. She was devout. She had faith. She made daily mass, volunteered a night a week in a soup kitchen, spent her adult life belonging to a secular Catholic charity organization and kept the commandments. What sins she had were surely venal and would have been cleansed by her regular confession. I had walked into her room to a priest performing the sacrament of last rite so often we had taken to calling it penultimate unction. If anyone had executed on the bargain with God, she had. My assumption was that somehow the Church had not comforted her, given her reasons for doubt or guilt.
Marita was the middle child in the picture. The other two girls, her sisters, were my Mother and the baby, my Godmother Joanne. Marita never married and had a dating experience so short as to be a family joke. She lived with her sister, my Mother, all her life and as a result, with my siblings and me as we were growing up. She was a conventional and conservative, a corporate secretary who always had money but who always shared it with us. She kept busy, travelled a little then stopped, took up diversions like puzzles rather than hobbies. She smoked until she got emphysema but that didn’t kill her. Her interests were limited. No trips to the art museum for her and the only song I ever heard her sing was happy birthday, which with her voice was probably just as well.
She could be critical and cranky, mostly when feeling the need to be a realistic counterweight in the family to her unrealistic sister, her unassuming husband and their dreamy kids. Edginess was her state much of the time. She was crabby but nice enough. And she would laugh, particularly with her sisters. Of course everyone laughs; laughter is incidental. Things are just funny at times regardless. But she never laughed without a reason. Her smile was never unconnected. I never thought of her as happy.
Their Mother died of tuberculosis probably a year or two years before the picture was taken. She was in the sanitarium, so alive but unable to be with, or even seen by her children for 6 months or so before that. Their father, Joseph, who I am named after, took to living with another woman soon after his wife’s passing and then had a stroke, which incapacitated him. He didn’t seem to be a great guy generally but I’m not sure how to blame him for either of those things. The girls were split up, shuffled between aunts and a grandmother. There was an older brother, who lived some other place, grew up and became a priest and died very young of a heart attack. The older two, Marita and my Mom were usually together, particularly before Joanne went to school.
When I was 18 I read the book Ulysses because it was thought to be difficult and I wanted to tell people I read it. A few years later I read it again because someone somewhere said that everyone should get to know one great book very well and I was afraid I hardly knew it at all. At around 40 I picked it up again but stopped reading almost as soon as I started. I did know the book, to the point that the sense of reading it filled me with loss. Joyce as a great writer caught the particular place in time, the sense of it, so vividly, it felt tragic because that particular moment was not only gone but irretrievable. The past, being literally past, gave me a feeling of mortal powerlessness.
The picture gave me the same sensation of loss. I see girls that are in a particular place in the past. The moment is gone but I feel a disquiet that lasted 80 years.