The small cardboard box had been sitting for months unopened. Curiosity finally carried the day and out spilled a half-century of family snapshots: washed-out Polaroids, black and white snaps, a few sepia-toned formal portraits and then the odd exceptions to the rule, photos that still sang out boldly in oversaturated but faded shades of red and brown. I organized them into piles by time, place, and player and then realized that I had a movie of sorts, much like the storyboards used to sketch out Hollywood films. Here then is one family’s story, an account that begins in Egypt in 1944.
My father stands trim, thin-lipped, well-tailored, an officer’s cap mushroomed high on his head—at attention on a moonscape airfield and then astride a camel. Big staff cars with four stars on the grill—officers take turns getting chauffeured around the camp in high style. Snapshot of a Brit practicing a bayonet charge down a dune, socks pulled to the knees, and then my father again, standing upright against a bunker in an oasis. Then on to Venice where he reclines, boyishly, eyes closed, draped drunkenly in the bow of a gondola. Sailboats on the Grand Canal: The war is over.
Home again and my mother is a cross between Hepburn and Garbo, tight-waisted in a long, flowing striped skirt and closely tailored jacket. They are two future parents enjoying cocktails on the lawn, the first of many highball evenings. Big earrings, well-shined shoes, close-cropped lawns, and acres of smiles.
Then the great outdoors. My father, a crossword puzzle adventurer, is caught, like Bigfoot, doing the unthinkable: building a log cabin on a lake in Maine with a wartime buddy. The closing shot is at the end of the day, two unlikely construction workers sitting by the edge of a lake, beers in hand, gangly, sunburned, enjoying a quiet moment before the swirl of family and career. Then the camera turns to my mother, the authentic outdoorswoman, in a canoe in Canada, Bean boots hanging off the gunwale, fly rod in hand, flat fishing hat strapped to her chin, that Hepburn profile still burning bright against the expanse of rippled water and shore. Another shot, rod stretched out across the water, cigarette dangling, and heavy sunglasses under the brim. Last shot, last frame: fingers in gills, a good 16-inch trout as the day’s trophy. And finally, there I am in my first scene, age 3, on my father’s lap, being rowed out to a small island in a Maine lake for the first of many fishing vacations. I’ll never forget my introduction to the green plastic Port-O-Potty. One more time, please: What is this thing for?
Vermont, 1955. We build a small cabin on a piece of the old Ford farm. My mother sits in a U.S. Army Jeep, in khaki shorts, arms outstretched, looking at the sky. It is the scene on which this whole movie turns. Glamour fades and the first chords of “Moonlight in Vermont” are cued. Are we home? Has Garbo been forgotten, pushed aside for mud season, raising pigs, and the smell of creosote? I think of her wedding photo that still sits upright on our piano; the Bette Davis cheekbones, the long train, and the soft studio lighting retired for the thrill of deer season and the smell of a wood-fired Kalamazoo cookstove.
Here I am again, in a sap house, boiling syrup at age 10, holding the skimmer, looking for the hot, sweet syrup to sheet just off the edge so we know it is time to draw off. (My sister, Kate, is also captured that day, unaccountably stirring sap in the outdoor metal tank, red mountain hat on head and smiling proudly.) The steam, the smell of boiled sap, the smoke from the wood fire, and then Rob Woodcock with his sad eyes and drooping handlebar mustache, the master of the sap house. In that dark shack, the photo captures daylight filtered through a steamed window and I find a piece of the eternal mystery, the subplot of this home movie, the one with nothing more than vague suggestions as to how it will end.
More fish, more camps in Maine with rows of canoes pulled up on shore, sagging stick docks, an early morning mist over the lake and then the film fast-forwards. Kate and I in full dress, headed for some now forgotten celebration, a blindfolded child with a large stick, aiming at a hanging piñata (a family birthday tradition), many small black and white shots before the holiday tree always taken in our Vermont cabin on Christmas Eve. Kate, my father, and I arranged in a row before the icicle-draped tree, performing like drunk monkeys—we see, hear, and speak no evil. Group portraits taken with the old Country Squire station wagon as backdrop, vestigial fins still visible, memories of throwing up on road trips and passing at high speed around sharp curves late at night. I sprout up, sport a Nehru jacket at a wedding, and then the film dissolves into cousins, aunts, and uncles from which the plot never quite recovers.
I have built my own sap house and have spent countless days, like my mother and her father before her, casting for salmon on the Miramashee, Matapedia, and Restigouche rivers. But of course these things are no more than trimmings. Is it, then, my mother in her Jeep, stretching her arms heavenward as if to say how blessed she is to find her place on earth? Is it about trying to recapture that moment in time in postwar America when we could simply dream our future? Or maybe it is nothing more than the welcoming signature of wood smoke, the crack of splitting wood, the pop of a new fire in a cold Franklin stove, and the electric promise of the gray skies of November, the advent of hunting season: dark, cold mornings, sunlight seeping over the mountain, rocky fields and giant maples slowly taking shape out of mountain mists?
Like a good movie, it is not the storyboard that matters. The true story is in the details, the subtleness of delivery, the look, the acts of grace, the pulling back when we want to stand center stage. Yet to cast a fly, to draw off syrup, to sight in a gun, to hitch up a horse, to breathe the same scented mountain air my parents did a half-century before me, is unaccountably rich in satisfaction. If we can grow up to become philosophers or farmers, I choose the latter. At least I stand on firm, familiar ground.