Christmas 1972

L-R: Nanny, Mom, Uncle John

Nanny wasn’t anyone’s nanny but my maternal grandmother; likewise, Uncle John was my maternal great-uncle. Grandpa (maternal grandfather) and Aunt Millie (maternal great-aunt) you’ll see later. Collectively, my stepdad called them (not unfondly) “the old folks.”

They had a powerful sense of attachment. Both couples lived in the same Brooklyn house for years; later, not long after my parents moved out to Long Island, they moved, too — only a mile away from us in a nice little two-story apartment complex, and again, right next door to each other. (Later my paternal grandmother would move to the same apartment complex only a few doors down.) Subsequently, they were always around us. Always. Nanny and Millie took care of the family wash, Grandpa and Uncle John would do manly odd jobs around the house, and and all of them picking up some of the loose ends of household management and child-rearing: feeding, shopping, transport, amusement, protection, dotage. Or they would just, you know, “hang out” and read the paper, have a cup of tea, watch the stock market returns on our cable TV, and so on. Friends sometimes cluck in envy that, unlike their own family members who’ve passed away early, leaving only a sad vague trace of remembrance and some old photos (if that), I knew my grandparents. (In comparison, my paternal grandfather, who died before I was born, is as much of a cipher as most of my other relatives.) The other side of the coin…well, the kind way of putting it is that they often drove the family crazy in a kind of Everybody Loves Raymond sort of way.

Anyway…what is my mom laughing at? It’s not clear from the photo, and the ones before and after don’t reveal anything. (Such an odd-looking laugh, too, with the arms and hands so delicately out-stretched, suggesting an over-rationalized response.) I’ve asked her and she doesn’t remember. She thinks she might be reacting to me or my brothers opening a gift, and if that’s the case, it sure would’ve been nice to see exactly what (there are not nearly enough pictures of toys in our collection, which shows you where my priorities are). The switch in photography from flash-powder formality to point-and-click immediacy has encouraged a much more casual relationship between the frontal lobe and the trigger finger; consequently, in any Western family’s photo library there is always a healthy percentage of photos like this which are completely inexplicable to anyone involved. Why this reaction? Why this gift and not that one? Why then and not a little later? Why the food and the immaculate set table and not that expensive toy? Why? Why? Why? Nobody can remember. We get to experience the echo but not the actual gunshot. (And yet a photo is itself an echo.) But we do get my mom’s crazy-ass patchwork maxiskirt (Which she still has! Which by all rights oughta be on someone’s waist in My Comrade‘s next issue!) and a really blank wall which seems to hover over the three like existential doom.