I have the death portrait of my great-grandmother’s baby who died from the measles in 1871. The baby’s name and sex are lost. My great-grandmother’s name was Florence Belva Parnell, and she was only 19 years old when her firstborn child died. In the daguerreotype, the dead infant is propped upright in its mother’s lap, draped in a white gown, probably its christening gown. My great-grandmother is wearing mourning taffeta, looking very young. She cradles the back of her baby’s head in one hand and leans her own head into her other hand. She does not look at the camera but the baby does, straight at the camera, eyes partly open, the left lid a little heavier then the right. Its expression reminds me of my childhood doll who had too many sugar-water tea parties spilled on her so that when you laid her down to sleep and her eyes were supposed to close, one eye stuck open. Or when you sat her up to feed her, both eyes stuck closed. In the picture of my great-grandmother’s dead baby, there is a smudge of dried blood under its nose that even now makes me want to take a handkerchief to it. It has five measle welts on its forehead that never got a chance to heal.
I first found this photograph while looking for my parents’ copy of a sex manual which I’d found once before under my father’s sweaters on the top shelf in his closet. I was ten years old and had dragged a chair up from the kitchen, pushed aside his shoes on the floor, stretched up on my tiptoes on the top of the chair until my arches cramped. I was remembering the amazing drawings of penises and where they fit into in women. Somehow, having seen these pictures once was not enough. I needed to confirm my own memories: were such things possible? were they likely? I worked through the closet by feel, sweeping my hand under my father’s smooth merino cardigan, between two cotton crewnecks, on top of an oiled-wool Aran Isles sweater that was stiff with age. I found the old photograph under the V-neck with the leather elbow patches. The picture was in an oval wooden frame, inside a paper wrapping that said Britt’s Daguerreotype Studio, San Francisco. I took it over to my parent’s bed and studied it. I thought the dark-haired woman with her head in her hands looked tired. I thought she was holding her child’s head because it would not behave itself for the camera. I had no idea the infant was dead. But then again, I thought my father was hiding the sex manual from my mother.
Nine years later when I was in college and writing a term paper for an art history class I asked my mother about the picture of the woman and the child.
“That was your father’s grandmother,” said my mother.
“What was her name?” I asked.
“She was also a Parnell,” said my mother.
“What was her first name?”
“Florence, I believe.”
“Florence? Just like me? Wow. Was I named for her?”
“I suppose your father might have been thinking of something like that. I just liked the name.” She was painting a watercolor of the light as it dripped through a maidenhair fern in the window.
“Sunlight kills ferns,” I said
“Yes,” said my mother. “But isn’t it beautiful?” She continued to twitch her brush across the paper so that little pinpoints of tint bled into the wash of water and spread out far beyond the boundaries of her brush. Watercolor was the only paint that continued to grow after you put it down. I never could understand how my mother controlled it.
“And is this Dad’s father?” I asked, pointing to the child in the photograph.
“No,” said my mother. “That was a child that died.”
“When did it die?”
“It’s dead right there.” She pointed with the long handle of her watercolor brush at the photograph.
“It’s dead here?” I pulled the picture up close to my eyes.
“Yes,” said my mother. “That’s a death portrait.” She was as matter of fact about the mysteries of death as about the mysteries of watercolor.
“Jesus,” I said.
I switched the subject of my art history term paper from 19th-century portrait photography to 19th-century death photography. I learned that the Victorians took pictures of their dead more readily than of their living. In many cases, the death portrait was the only picture that ever existed of a person, particularly a child. Photographers took care to pose the corpses as if they were still living, sitting them up in chairs, eyes closed, hands crossed in their laps as if they were thinking pleasant thoughts while awaiting their Sunday visitors. Sometimes they were posed reclining on settees, eye open, hands crossed on their chests, heads tilted to the side, as if they were listening to poetry being read in the next room.
I sent my mother the finished report with the professor’s “B+, nice work, interesting subject” on it and my mother sent me back one of her characteristic handwritten notes:
You typing is shaping up nicely. I noticed there weren’t too many white-outs. Perhaps you could make a future for yourself in the field of secretarialism. Keep up the good work.
p. s. I’ve enclosed a snapshot of my newest watercolor of the light from a forest fire reflected on a calypso orchid.
When I was 25 years old, a secretary, and pregnant by the married man who employed me and whom I thought I loved, I found myself preparing for the ordeal of my first abortion. I took out the picture of Florence Belva Parnell with her dead baby. I sought information about her grief. I looked closely at the image of her hand as it cradled the infant’s head. Hers was an unmistakably tender touch, the fingers curled around the little ear and pressed flat against the downy hair as if she’d been stroking it in the private moments while the photographer set up his shot. She was not appalled that this was the corpse of her baby. She was not in any way repulsed by its death. She was just sad. I thought she looked boneless from grief. I felt that way too.
As I grew older I became more interested in the story of this woman and pressed my father for information about her when I made trips to his cabin. He had chosen to leave my mother when I was 30 and live alone in the ugly scrub pines on the west slope of the Sierra. “I’m sick of her,” he told me when I asked him why they’d gotten divorced after all these years. “If I want to live on cans of Dinty Moore stew and smoke in the house and wear dirty clothes well by god at my age I’m going to.” I stopped trying to clean up around his place after that and spent my time just talking with him.
“Your grandfather told me a few stories about his mother, Florence,” said my father one night as we sat in the old broken-down kitchen chairs that he’d scrounged from some fleamarket and set up behind his cabin. The only saving grace to his piece of property as far as I could tell was the stars. They lived in abundance out there, crowding the skies with light carried across trillions of miles of the universe. He had taught me the stars and constellations when I was a child, but here, on the land at the end of his life, the cosmos had grown larger and more brilliant than anything I had ever seen before. I realized then that I could never know all these stars. For the first time I understood that my father’s sky glittered with worlds that had been extinct for eons, that existed only as traveling light.
“When Florence was 16 years old she went west with her parents on a wagon train from Iowa,” my father told me. “They were headed out the Overland Trail for Oregon, but her parents died of cholera somewhere in Nebraska, and Florence hooked up with a widower named Birthright Parnell who was on the same wagon train, only he took the south fork in Wyoming and went to California. She went with him. They got married in San Francisco and ran a saloon there and raised Birthright’s son from his previous marriage and his two nephews which he’d taken on after his brother drowned during the crossing of the Platte River. Birthright, I guess, had a thing for orphans. When Florence was 37 years old she gave birth to the only one of her twelve children who survived past the age of seven. That was my father, Lucky Parnell.”
“And?” I asked as his voice trailed to a stop in the darkness.
But my father would only tell me that it was time to stop talking and start looking, because the Perseids were running. And he clamped his mouth down and turned his head up to the big night overhead, forcing me to look up too. When my father was younger, he had taken time-lapse photographs of the Perseid meteor showers that made it look as if silver stars dripped like stalactites from the roof of the sky. Somehow both my parents knew the secret to making small pictures grow larger.
I let my own head drop back, let my eyes drift off without focus. I knew that to see shooting stars you had to set your eyes free.
“The Perseids were named because they appear to shoot like arrows from the constellation of Perseus, the archer,” my father had said to me when I was a child and we would watch the showers from the dark hills on the far side of the Golden Gate Bridge.
“Who is Perseus?” I wanted to know.
“Perseus was the son of Zeus who slew the Medusa and then carried her head around with him, flashing it at his enemies and turning them into stone. He rescued the beautiful Andromeda from Cetus by using the power of the dead Medusa’s head.”
“How long did this head last?” I wanted to know.
“Forever,” said my father. “You see. Perseus is still in the sky. Every night he plays out his fate, again and again. And every August he shoots his quiver of arrows through the sky for us to see.”
It took a few moments of relaxation in the cold air on my father’s mountain before I could see Perseus firing. I saw only single arrows in the beginning. But within half an hour they were racing furiously through the sky, bouncing off the edges of my sight, scoring a few direct hits in the center. The Sierra night illuminated more of Perseus’s arrows than I had ever seen before.
“It’s a good year,” said my father, resting his head on the back of the old kitchen chair. “The Delta Aquarid meteors are running right now too.”
I listened to his words, let my eyes drift to a point of such distant focus that they almost came full circle, to the point of closest focus. I felt the stars swarming past my sight and into my fiber.
“I wish we had a name for it,” I said to my father.
“For what?” he said, his eyes still up to the sky.
“Florence’s dead baby.”
“No use,” he said. “It’s lost”
“Maybe we should make up a name,” I said.
“No,” said my father. “It had a real name once and you can’t change that.”
But secretly I called it Independence.
When I was 37 and pregnant for the third time, I decided to have the baby even though I was not married and could not hope to interest the father (another boss, also married) in parenthood. I knew that Florence had been my age when she gave birth to my grandfather Lucky. I knew I wanted this child. I told my mother the news while she painted in the front parlor of the old Victorian that she had bought in Petaluma after my father died. Despite the divorce, he had left her his money and his property in the Sierra. “I want some history around me,” she told me when I asked why she had bought an old house with all its aches and pains. “I want to feel part of some continuum.”
“You never felt that way before,” I said.
“No,” she said.
But she was delighted about my pregnancy. She told me that motherhood was far better than wifehood and that I had chosen the right half of the equation to balance my budget on. Then she cleaned her brushes and wiped them dry.
A week later I received a little package from her in the mail. She had bought me a beautiful antique picture frame with leather edging and hand-worked wood carving.
You can put the baby’s picture in here when it’s born. I am very happy about your news.
p. s. I won first place in the Art Fair for my painting of the light shining through Mrs. Rosen’s window at night.
I intended to put the baby’s picture in the old frame. But until that time, I decided to put the picture of my greatgrandmother and her dead child in it, and then I never took it out.
I knew before my baby was born that it would be a girl and I decided to name her Florence Independence Parnell. “For my great-grandmother,” I told my mother. “Not for me.”
“Well I always thought it was a pretty name,” she said.
But I called her Indy from the start.
After Indy was born I would hold her in my lap with one hand on her chest, feeling her heart beating fast and fluttery through the eggshells of her ribs. I would look down on her face and study the tiny blue veins under her skin, memorizing them, thinking: someday her skin will grow thicker, but I will always know the blueprint of her inner life. She would smile up at me with eyes so new that I couldn’t tell if they were really focused on me, or on something further away.
When she was under a year old I took her to the pediatrician for her measles vaccination. When the doctor stuck her with the needle I started to cry too. “Wow,” he said. “You’re a pretty attached mother.” But I was crying for the other Independence and the other Florence.
As Indy grew she learned the secrets of watercolor from her grandmother. We would visit Petaluma on Sundays and sit in the big sunny front parlor of my mother’s house. My mother and Indy each had their easels and their brushes and together they would paint the sunlight on the stems of cut ranunculus in a vase of water, or the slats of light that fell on my mother’s oriental rug through the wooden blinds. I watched Indy twitch her brush across the wet paper, watched the color start small and grow outward, watched the light shimmer in her pictures like a moving thing.
“Well,” said my mother; sizing up Indy’s work. “Indy sure takes after me. She could be a great painter.”
When Indy was 11 years old she asked me to fill in the gaps in her knowledge of the facts of life. She was reading “Little Women” that summer, feeling the deficit of both siblings and father and questioning me at length about her own history. I had already explained to her why I had never married her father and how he had died before she turned two. I told her that she came from a long line of single-child families: me, my father, his father. We looked through the old photo albums together, laughing at the snapshots of her infanthood: her love of peas (she would collect them off her plate and paste them on her head), her first day at the beach (crawling after seagulls to offer them cookies), her rides on the back of her polka-dotted rockinghorse (which my father had built for me and which I had passed down to her), Indy smiling with glee, gripping hard on the handles of the rockinghorse’s ears. “I always flew on that rockinghorse,” she told me. “We went to Persia and sometimes to Egypt. Did you fly on him too?”
“No,” I said. “I think I enjoyed just rocking in place.”
“If I had brothers and sisters,” she asked, “do you think we could have flown to those places together?”
“I’m sure you would have,” I said, hugging her, feeling her curiosity bursting through her bones, knowing that someday it would speed her on her way from me.
“I have a pretty good idea of how people do it,” she said, regarding sex. “But I’m not sure about all the details.”
I thought back to my father’s manual and the line-drawings of body parts. I thought of my bosses and lost boyfriends, of passion and mispassion. Then I told her the truth, about penises and where they fit into a women, about eggs and sperm and embryos.
“Is it fun?” she asked, skeptical.
I offered my advice: “sex is best for love or babies.” She looked hopeful. I thought of the rockinghorse and conceded, “Indy, sex may take you places I’ve never been.”
When Indy was 16 years old, in the aftermath of my mother’s death, I showed her the daguerreotype of Florence Belva Parnell and her dead infant. We had packed up my mother’s old house and put it on the market. We had held an estate sale and auctioned off most of her belongings. We kept only her paintings, her photo albums, and her letters.
“This is your great-great-grandmother,” I said, showing Indy the daguerreotype.
“Who’s the baby?”
“That’s a baby that died.”
“When did it die?”
“This is its death portrait,” I said. “In those days, people took pictures of the dead as remembrances.”
“Really?” said Indy, taking the picture out of my hand for a closer look. “Why?”
“The pictures consoled them,” I said.
“I can see that,” said Indy, studying.
She nodded. “Do you keep it because of that?” she asked.
I thought for a moment. “Yes,” I said. “This picture has consoled me many times over the years.”
When Indy was 22 years old, she joined the Peace Corps. After four years away at college I had imagined that she might come back with me for a spell. I repainted her room, bought her a new comforter in midnight blue with flecks like stars in it, planned trips to the Chabot Observatory, to the redwoods, to Big Sur.
“I’m going to Ghana,” she called me up to tell me.
“Ghana?” I said. “That’s so far away.”
“I know,” said Indy. “Isn’t it exciting?”
“What about medical school?” I asked.
“I’ll go as soon as I get back.”
“When will that be?”
“Not for two years,” she said, proudly.
During the two months before she left we talked on the phone often, Indy telling me about Ghana and the village near Banda Nkwanta in the hills above the Black Volta where she would live. She told me about her job working in the local medical clinic, where schistosomiasis, sleeping sickness and malaria were epidemic. “But I’m going to learn too,” she said. “I’m going to study the herbal medicines of the region.”
I thought of Africa, so far away that we would never even share the same sunlight. I thought of Florence Belva Parnell leaving her dead parents in long-forgotten graves on the Nebraska plains. I decided to give Indy one of my father’s photographs of the Perseid meteor showers to take with her. I gave her the last painting my mother ever made of the light inside a honeycomb.
“What about you?” she asked. “I want to take something of yours with me.”
“I’ll think of something,” I said.
I went through all my belongings: the antique gold wedding bands that I collected, the Depression glass, the old books, and postcards of places I’d never been. In the end I looked in the yellow pages for a professional photographer. San Francisco had hundreds. I saw a listing for Britt’s Photography, thought: it can’t be possible, and called to make an appointment.
“I want a photograph to give to my daughter to take with her into the Peace Corps,” I told the gray-haired man behind the camera.
“Something special then,” he said.
I nodded. “How long has Britt’s been here?” I asked.
“Since 1869,” he said.
“My great-grandmother had a photograph taken here in 1871,” I said.
“Really?” He smiled in amazement. “My great-grandfather probably took it.”
“But it wouldn’t have been here exactly,” he said. “The old studio burned down after the 1906 quake.”
“Oh,” I said.
“What kind of a portrait would you like?” he asked, smiling.
“My daughter would probably like something glamorous,” I said. “But I’m not sure that’s possible.”
“What would you like?”
I thought for a moment. “I would like a picture where it looks like I am watching the stars, or a meteor shower.”
“That’s a lovely idea,” he said.
A week after the session he sent me the pages of contact prints and told me to circle the ones I wanted printed. There were pictures with my head tilted up, slightly to the right, down to the left, over the shoulder. I chose the one where my chin rests in one hand and a bar of light, like in the old movies, illuminates my eyes. “Yes,” I thought “That is the look. That is the starlight.”
I sat in Indy’s room, on the star-flecked comforter, and wrote her a note:
Since the day you were born I have watched you streak across my sky like a shooting star. Now you are traveling on a path begun long ago, before your great-great-grandmother came west, before her grandparents arrived in this country. As you know, I have always loved the past. But because of you, I have come to cherish the future too.
All my love,
I searched the antique stores for a frame for my portrait. In the end I chose a shiny new frame made of hammered brass and silver. I thought of the original Florence Parnell setting the daguerreotype of her firstborn child inside a protective circle of wood. I placed the print of my portrait between the corners of bright metal, wrapped it up with my note in the tissue paper that said Britt’s Photography, and gave it to Indy to take with her.