The Family Album
My winter project was to scan old family photos. I was reminded that my paternal grandfather (he also wore a bow tie) had more than a passing resemblance to Lurch from the Addams Family and that, yes, I actually did dress up in a cowboy hat, blue jean jacket, and the requisite boots during a vacation at a Wyoming dude ranch when I was 12. (The only redeeming feature was that my father, who was in the photo with me, looked even more out of place in a red plaid shirt and khakis.)
The gems from this collection are a sepia shot of my mother in fishing hat and sunglasses holding up a 20-inch trout while sitting in the bow of a canoe in Canada; a family portrait of my grandmother and her three sisters that included my great-grandmother, Caroline de Wolf, who was married to the portrait painter and Whistler contemporary Harper Pennington; and a color photo of yours truly at age 7 or 8 dressed in a baggy white baseball uniform with STARS sewn on the front. (I played Little League.) My other favorites were a shot of my mother, Mary Alice, standing at a small cookstove when she was just married (a rare shot indeed) and an old black and white of my sister, Kate, helping my mother collect sap for the local maple sugaring operation owned by Charlie Bentley.
It is tempting to offer homilies about the past. One might conclude that life was simpler, except that it wasn’t. Lives were just as messy and complicated 50 years ago as they are today. If you say that we had a deeper sense of place, you might be right, since Americans were less nomadic, but I am reminded of a friend who grew up in the Midwest; he is now happily ensconced in New Orleans as a food writer and only returns to Minnesota once per year. Large extended families, three or more generations beaming out at the camera, tug at one’s heartstrings but also remind us of the arguments (I remember a particularly bloody engagement one Thanksgiving regarding Spiro Agnew) and petty drawing room back and forth that is part and parcel of family members packed tightly in a narrow social spiral.
Family albums can, however, bring back halcyon memories. The warm, sharp scent of wild sage on that Wyoming dude ranch. The feel of a soft, sun-warmed baseball mitt. Ribbons of light illuminating the dark interior of a steam-filled saphouse and the slow pooling and drip of thick syrup off the skimmer. My mother taking charge after a poor day of fishing in Maine, telling the guide where to position the canoe, and my first cast over a large pool and the almost immediate tug downward of a hungry trout. The nervous tail wagging of our overbred pointer, Kili, who shook her body so violently back and forth when you walked into a room that you thought she would die of happiness. One photo in particular brings back rich memories—a shot of our just-built Vermont cabin in 1955, taken from atop a nearby hill; it looks primitive and reminds me of pressed wildflowers, sweet corn dinners, frogs’ legs, homemade beef and pork burgers, chopping kindling, Wilcox coffee ice cream, party line phones, gin and tonics on the porch, wildfires, snowbanks, Vermont cheddar, moonlit rides in our WWII jeep, creosote, summer saunas, and copperhead snakes slithering in the weeds by the lower pond.
Perhaps life can be judged by the number of family albums one has accumulated. Some lives are a straight line between birth and death; one album does the trick. Others live lives with many chapters, each one starting with a new photo placed on a crisp white page.
Dr. Seuss wrote, “Everyone is just waiting; waiting for the fish to bite or waiting for wind to fly a kite, or a pot to boil, or a Better Break, or a string of pearls, or a pair of pants, or a wig with curls, or Another Chance.” And so, we sometimes find ourselves at the point when we need to begin a new album. Our “arms may get sore, and our sneakers may leak” but it’s time to be off, “up many a creek.” Photos are taken, pages are filled, and this becomes our legacy for the next generation.
Mary Alice, my mother, lived a life of many albums. The unlikely Washington, D.C., debutante. The gilt-edged bride at National Cathedral. Then WWII and working in an upstate New York wire factory, supporting the war effort. Posing by an apartment-size cookstove, the reluctant homemaker. Then fishing and hunting, in canoes, camping on lakeshores in Maine, and then caught off guard in an Elmer Fudd hunting cap during deer season in Vermont. The career professional, recorded in China at yet another academic conference. The later years in northwestern Connecticut, alone on her farm, ruddy-faced and a tad unsteady, watching grandchildren hunt for Easter eggs among the guinea hens and Rhode Island Reds. A parting snapshot, high in the Adirondacks in her mountaintop cabin, in splendid simplicity; a wood stove, binoculars, and a view across the top of the world. And then, just a sunset memory, not recorded, of an older woman with her hair down, veins still pumping vinegar, but having a quiet moment as if to say, from mother to son, all the things that are never said.
We don’t choose how many albums we fill during a lifetime, but we can decide how to fill them. And it is worth remembering, as Dr. Seuss did, that today is always our day; we’re off to great places, we’re off and away!
Go to CooksIllustrated.com/cpkfamilyphotos to view selected photos from my family album (including me at the dude ranch). Apologies to Dr. Seuss.