One of my favorite photos is of our year-old daughter, looking over her shoulder from a foot-high galvanized tub on a bare cement floor, waiting to be bathed. It is the summer of 1959; we are pinched into the concrete-block toolshed I’d built a year earlier for practice. It has become our home while I labor to get our new house roofed, enclosed, and heated before autumn cold makes the toolshed intolerable. I work longer hours every evening than I do at my job.
I smile every time I see that photo.
It tickles me several times a month, because years ago that very daughter gave me a digital picture frame that displays, a minute at a time, almost a thousand family photos she loaded into it. Barely a foot tall, it perches atop a short chest of drawers, facing my recliner. I spend hours in that comfy chair reading, watching TV, and even munching meals, occasionally glancing up to see my life—more importantly, my family—parade before me in that frame, growing up in surreal time.
The frame ↬ swipes itself, and here she is, that refugee from a washtub, cradling a baby brother in her arms, she herself barely past babyhood.
↬ Now here they both are with my wife, a brick-paved patio with the quasi-Japanese house (sliding paper doors inside modern thermopane) framing them. Has another year passed? If I’ve found time to pave the patio, I must have nearly finished the Zen-stern interior. I am reminded that early cold drove us to move in when water ran only at the kitchen sink, and exited only at the toilet; it was another two weeks before all the plumbing was copasetic.
↬ Now here are all four of us—I must have discovered a timer and tripod—as the kids set off for school from our new city home. We’ve rented out the Japanese house and its meadow, and have moved into the city; we are determined to make common cause with our Black neighbors. Their parents’ unabashed liberalism will impose subtle burdens on these kids over the years ahead. Daughter has begun to look unmistakably like Mother.
↬ Daughter and Son are setting out to go door-to-door for Halloween treats—not in store-bought masks, but with face-paint, glued-on mustaches and bowler hats, a Chaplinesque disguise. Both seem taller than the day they set off for school; has it already been a year since then?
↬ Our son, maybe seven or eight, is helping paint the garage. He wears a skullcap cleverly folded from a page of the newspaper where I will soon become an editor; the skullcap a pattern I learned from the pressmen who put my words into readers’ hands. They daily wear such caps against ink-fog.
↬ The four of us are on a Jamaican beach. Our daughter has surely begun high school; she is as tall as her mother, who looks more like an older sister. Both have bobbed hair; they are slightly sun-bleached brunettes. My own head shows touches of frost: in our society, save for movie stars and such, men don’t disguise the graying of their thatches. I actually prize my frost, which obscures that I am young for my growing responsibilities.
↬ Four of us again, on a bicycle outing. Both the kids must now be in high school. Our daughter is definitely taller than her mother, and our son nearly so. He has the same tall, lanky frame as the last three generations of Noel men.
↬ He and I are camping on the shoulder of California’s High Sierra, our last father-and-son adventure. This photo brings a lump to my throat: he’s in high school; we will lose him just before his graduation.
↬ Three of us are in the college stadium that is about to host the graduating class and their parents. Mother and Daughter are as prettily—no, beautifully—alike as peas in a pod. You could set my wife amidst the whole graduating class, and anyone could pick out her daughter.
↬ A new fourth member of our family is with us, posed by a wedding photographer. We approve our daughter’s choice. They both teach in the all-Black city school from which my wife retired not long ago. Neither he nor his new father-in-law look to be matches for these bright, handsome women.
↬ A family Christmas-letter photo six years later, with a new babe in arms, his grandparents glowing with admiration. A new generation amply offsets the indignities of growing older.
↬ Back on that Jamaican beach, dawn still bourgeoning, a candid photo snapped by our daughter. Stooping slightly to reach a tiny hand, I take her son walking at the foamy fringe of a gentle surf. Later years’ photos will show that stroll to have become a vacation-morning tradition; it lasted until he decided he was too grown-up for handholding—as though that were for safety rather than sentiment.
↬ Perhaps four years old in this next photo, he poses by a lawn sign advertising his grandmother’s (winning) campaign for the school board. He wears a too-big football jersey, its huge 17 must betoken some gridiron hero whose name I have long since forgotten.
↬ His grandparents have taken him to ride a State Police horse. He has inherited the Noel men’s frame and is growing like a weed.
↬, ↬ Family Christmas-letter photos, the years passing by like lightning. The later ones begin to show the diminishing luster of my wife’s eyes and the limited facial expressiveness that are the imprint of Alzheimer’s. It will take her from us in another five years. My eyes moisten again.
↬ I had to beseech this last photo from my daughter and add it to the picture frame’s thumb drive. My grandson has gotten through college while I’ve been savoring the initial collection. It is just a portrait, because the pandemic denied him Yale’s congregate boola-boola hoopla and formal solemnity.
There are two shelves of old-fashioned photo scrapbooks in my tiny living room, but they are cumbersome to handle, and gather dust. This picture frame is their successor, an electronic gadget that compresses time, nudges me every day and prompts memory. My progeny grows up, and I grow older.
Everyone ought to have one.