A Moment Long Ago: The Itinerant Photographer
An itinerant photographer has set up his camera, lights, and chair in a local grocery store. This was many years ago. I was there, I saw it myself. A very small girl is sitting in the chair, hardly more than a baby. He is having a hard time with her. She will not smile. She watches him solemnly. At last, in desperation, he holds up an orange giraffe, takes a step toward her, and waves it wildly in her face. At that, she opens her mouth wide, showing her only two teeth, and bursts into tears.
The word for egg in Dutch is ei. In German, it is Ei, in Yiddish ey, in Old English ǽg. The word for egg in Norwegian is egg; in Icelandic, it is egg, in Faroese egg,in Swedish ägg, in Danish æg. InOld Norse the word is egg, in Middle English egge. (InFrench, it is œuf.) (In Scottish Gaelic it is ugh.)
Two American babies, long ago, are learning to speak—they are learning English, they have no choice. They are close to eighteen months old, one is a week older than the other. Sometimes they fight over a toy, at other times they play quietly by themselves in the same room.
On the living-room floor, today, one baby sees a round white thing on the rug. He gets to his feet, with some difficulty, and toddles over to it. He says, “Eck?” At this, the other one looks up, interested, gets to his feet, also with some difficulty, toddles over to see, and says, “Ack!” They’re learning the word, they’ve almost got it. It does not matter that the round white object is not an egg but a ping-pong ball. In time, they will learn this too.
Just a Little
Agnes Varda, the French film director,
said in an interview
that she liked to do a little sewing,
a little cooking, a little gardening, a little baby care—
but just a little.
Two Stories About Boys
My friend Tom tells me a story. He has lived in the same house since he was a child. Until about a decade ago, he lived there with his mother, then she died and he went on living there alone. Neither when his mother was alive nor afterward was the house altered very much from how it had been in his childhood. Recently, he decided to make some changes in his bathroom, and part of the work involved removing the “surround” of the bathtub. When the builder began to tear it away, he discovered something: Stacked neatly by one foot of the tub were half a dozen very old cans of tuna fish, unopened, rusted.
For a time, this was a mystery. Tom thought and thought about these cans of tuna fish that had been stacked there by the hidden clawfoot of his bathtub for so long. Then at last he remembered: Some sixty-odd years ago, when he was a child, he and his friends were told by the grownups, who watched the news every night, about the imminent danger of nuclear war. The boys were little by little instilled with a fear of this catastrophe. As a precaution, Tom’s closest friend, an enterprising boy, took the cans of tuna fish, one by one over time, so as not to be found out, from his family’s kitchen cupboard and secreted them inside the tub surround at Tom’s house, an emergency provision in case of nuclear war.
I thought of this story when I was out in the Midwest, in Iowa City. I was walking through a historic old mansion which was now the home of a large and prosperous interior-design business. I was visiting this house because it had been well-known to my mother in her childhood. I was wandering upstairs and down, in and out of the rooms, former bedrooms which now contained bolts of cloth and wallpaper books, because my mother had told me many stories about it from when she was very young. It had been the home of a cousin of hers, a wealthy girl—unlike my mother, who was poor. My mother had visited her cousin there many times—the girls were close friends. I have a photograph of my mother as a little girl standing with her mother, who is dressed all in black, with this house in the background. After many years had passed, the heirs of the cousin’s family had sold the house and it had been converted into an orphanage.
I fell into conversation with the owner of the interior-design firm, telling him about my mother and her cousin. He listened attentively and then in turn told me a story. During the time in which the house was used as an orphanage, the curving, broad oak banister that ran two flights up through the generous stairwell of the house had been freshly painted. One of the orphans, a boy of nine or ten, in a fit of mischievousness, had stood at the top of the stairs and cut open a feather pillow above the freshly painted banister. The feathers had floated down and stuck to the paint.
The years passed, and the place changed hands several times, the banister being repainted from time to time. Finally, the mansion came into the possession of the design firm, and they embarked on a thorough renovation. The banister was to be sanded down to its original wood, and for this they hired a local man. He took layer after layer of the old paint off the wood until he came to the layer in which he could detect the remains of those same feathers, dried into the old paint. He knew what they were. He was the same boy who, living there as an orphan, had cut open the pillow and scattered the feathers.