Scheherazade – X — The Disney Log Flume
A journey looking through family photos. This is part of a larger piece about time alone in my family's summer home after the death of my parents: our music, our photos, and, above all, our letters.
I confess to an almost religious affection for my own image as a child and then, more broadly, to pictures of my brother and my parents as children, and their parents and their parents’ parents as children all the way back, up and around the banks of the river and somewhere back in time well out of sight.
It’s not bewildered infancy I’m thinking of with its fat cheeks, its neck wobbling, its dazed perch on the shoulder. But it’s before the scrunched slugger-face pose on Phillies “Bat Day,” before the handstand skateboard trick, before the model rocket held forward and brandished like a sword. Before the stain and strain of approval, before turning my shoulder angrily from camera to tend the smoky little fire of my adolescence, before the cool tilt of the head and the calculated squint. Before the endless mastering and becoming.
Before all of that.
I’m thinking of the sweet-spot in childhood, something in the interval of the two, and pictures taken in that period never fail to move me. The physical beauty of a child – any child – before seven years or so plays a part, but there is something else too, something easy in the photographic moment, soft in the eyes visible through the screen door, in my hand resting on my own shoulder, my fingers as limp and delicate as an Old Master cherub, or in the softness around my brother’s mouth blowing out a dandelion, or my father in his suspenders standing over the tickle of a little white dog, his arms out sideways in delight, my mother by a picnic basket, belly on the grass, feet crossed behind her in the air.
Something in that age interval challenges all current life strategies. There’s some essential and beautiful quality in those years whose only defense appears to be its lovability – the Fontanel Defense – surrounding young life as delicately as an eggshell, if surrounding it at all. Just for a moment there, a season of pure and exposed beauty.
Picking through the family photographs allows me to imagine myself sailing back up on this ancestral river trying to find the faces that connect to me, that tell my story now. It is a fast running river merging Norwegians, Germans, Polish and Ukrainian Jews, Salem puritans, French trappers, Native Americans, and all joining and flowing together and merging and roiling and then racing quickly downstream together.
I’m always trying to see who’s come before, fighting my way through brambles by the shoreline, my boat grounded in the mud, but still trying to make my way upstream, negotiating under tree limbs jutting into the river, hungering for the start of the river, my source, but only marginally improving my view, searching for lost children and other signs of photographic life on the up-river headlands.
But it’s not long before I don’t even know who’s who anymore in these pictures, and these days there is barely anyone left to ask, just images of weary photographed great grandparents at the river’s edge, grim and serious by their old-fashioned prams; they are now as lifeless as movie theater lobby actor cutouts propped up on the bank, waiting to be unhanded by the grasping present, their children buried long ago in the river woods behind them. They gaze back at their descendant bobbing about to find something he’s lost, some flesh and bone to hold on to, the descendant playing at visual riddles and finding a familiar brow or a cheek, no answers at all really, just ancestors murmuring in their sleep, the odd word muttered clearly here and there.
Life, even photographic life, is so fish-eyed on the present. Time compresses the boundary players into the wings, swaps out the cast, moves yesterday’s stars into bit roles — or, from a high enough angle, its opposite, making the river of time look like a tiny canal connecting two giant, fathomless oceans.
So put down your cameras and just take a good look around you, kids. Most of this ancestral coastline will be gone by the time you’re grown.
A final wide-angle photograph:
This one from the banks of a Disney log flume river cruise where half-filled passenger bumper boats navigate lazily through the dark – but moving steadily, with purpose, on a timetable. It almost never happens in pictures because either mom or dad always has the camera, but in this Disney Polaroid all four of us are in the boat together, embarking shoulder-to-shoulder, the silhouette of a perfect family, boy-girl, boy-girl.
You can see the exit trail of a brief white-water rush behind us. Colorful mechanical parrots squawk over a bridge. Pirates wag their swords and cackle every 46 seconds. (We timed it that day and laughed at the proof.) Ruddy-cheeked ladies of the night gather about sailors sitting athwart TNT kegs, lifting their white dresses in herky-jerky dances. Cheerful children’s music plays in existential loops, let’s remember it as, say, the soundtrack to Born Free.
Born free, as free as the wind blows As free as the grass grows Born free to follow your heart Live free, and beauty surrounds you The world still astounds you Each time you look at a star
Someday my children will find this picture along with the one of me sorting in my old bedroom and the thousands of others. I imagine them in a rainy afternoon solo groove of their own, dividing up their parents’ pictures, sailing their way back in time, their future families receding for a moment, the years falling away against the bow. They head towards their childhood land of Wild Things, towards the mythical Greek islands where they came into being and the deserted, overcast ruins of childhood that they now only make time to visit in the rain.
They will open the same old photograph albums for the hundredth time, race around and around through the amusement park rain to get back in line, to get back on the same false tour, the delight of projected ghosts appearing on their shoulders, making them laugh, their mechanical boat bumping and wiggling them through the dark.
Around and around and around we go, all things about us beautiful and stirring – like these lion-hearted children on the record changer singing Born Free for the millionth time, the steady changer resetting and the needle dropping, mechanically click clacking, lint accumulating on the diamond, until it’s midnight and the ride is full of empty boats, splashing softly, lapping and jostling in the darkness, ghosts appearing on the shoulders of ghosts and disappearing around the bend.
This piece starts here:
Complete text to date here:
Feel something. Twice a week.
A few pieces to share from the Same Walk, Different Shoes project. My contribution was A Box of Rain. The quality is really high up and down (there are 50!) Here are others that stood out. I haven’t even read half to date!