This is a picture my father took of my mother holding me in front our VW camper van. We were traveling from the East Coast to the Midwest. He was changing jobs in 1969 and we were resettling before the seventies took hold.
I loved that van. I remembered it throughout my childhood. There was something magical about it. It was from a time when my brain was forming and I was linking together disparate ideas. That van meant family to me.
When my parents divorced, the van was gone. Children don't understand where things go. It doesn't make sense that something so big should disappear. It took me most of my life to find it again----but more on that later.
My father had pictures of the van. Actually, my father didn't have pictures exactly; he had slides. He had this metal briefcase which I could open up and find little rectangles of my life. I would have to cross check on the underside of the lid for the categories he had carefully penciled out in this tiny cursive. There was my fourth birthday. There was the trip to the apple orchard. There was the day at the beach. I could then decide which part of my fractured life to revisit. My father had made notations on each slide as well. One by one, I'd carefully lift out a tiny Kodak frame and hold it up to the lamp to see the brilliant colors inside.
If I was feeling gutsy (and I usually was), I would ask my dad for his annual slideshow. This wasn't any problem for my dad, as he seemed to enjoy the trips down memory lane. The issue was with my stepmother. She wasn't a big fan of his life before she married him (which included me). She would sit there sullen as my father and I laughed over stories of me being naughty.
There was that time he was recording the wild wolves howling. No joke. That was my father's life as a wildlife biologist. Can you imagine? He was paid to sit quietly in the thick woods and save moon songs. I was along that summer. I remember catching fireflies in a jar, holding a little bird on my finger, and ruining his wolf recording with my version of "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star."
That summer, when I was three, would would really be the last one for us as a family. My fourth birthday party was also a goodbye party. He married his second wife shortly thereafter. For one year, they lived nearby and then they moved away. At the age of 7, I would be placed alone on a greyhound bus (right behind the driver) and travel those long two hours, then be picked up by my dad at the station.
There was a kind of ritual to our reuniting. He'd always pull out a tiny piece of Trident spearmint gum, tear it in half and share it between the two of us (as if it was big enough to share). He'd take his black, plastic comb and fix my hair. We'd get in the car and drive. Before we left the city, we'd stop at Arby's roast beef and he'd be sure to squeeze on some Horsey Sauce. Occasionally, he'd have to pull over on a country road and let me get rid of my car sickness. No, we were not as close, but we were something to each other.
When I was 12, I left my mother to visit my father once again. This time, the trip would be longer because I was flying from the Midwest to the Carribean. My father had gotten a prime job and a great place to live. I had pleaded with my mother to let me leave the horrible small town, which was suffocating me, so I could breathe in some tropical mountain air.
I did realize that I would be living with my father and my stepmother. My stepmother placed my belongings in the guesthouse. I would not be living in the main house with them.
I would live in the small building alone. It was only a short walk to the bathroom from there. It usually wasn't a problem unless it was raining, or night time or I was sick or...you know...I'm sure she meant to
One benefit to living in that little building was that it housed their stuff. I'm a snooper. I love to dig around. I've curtailed this habit in real life by simply channeling those tendencies into the internet. I found the briefcase of my father's Kodak slides and I started to go through them.
I was excited by my find. My father relented to another slideshow. The three of us sat together. I remember some alcohol being poured. There were many happy hours at their house (but not the kind of happy hours I had been hoping for). As I was older now, I understood better the silences from his wife. She had another drink and made a couple of cracks. She loved to crack on my dad; that's what little minds do to greatness. They can't imagine improving themselves so they tear down someone else in hopes of moving ahead.
At the end of my stay, at the age of 13, I made a decision. I was going to take some slides. First, I took out the slides of my mother and her parents. My grandmother had just died and I thought my mom would appreciate seeing them. I didn't ask. I felt it was my right. Once that was done, I kept going. I took out any pictures of my mother. Why should that young and beautiful version of my mother be packed away? Then I took out any pictures of myself. I pilfered every trace of my former happiness. Without telling anyone, I robbed the briefcase of my past.
I wonder if my father ever tried to find them. The briefcase was there but it was half empty. Did he notice? Did he care? I never asked and never confessed.
I also never asked for another slideshow. We never laughed together again about who I had been and how life had started for me. I robbed myself of myself. I lost a connection while trying to hold onto it.
My life kept going.
Years later, I took those slides of my maternal grandparents in to a developer to get made into photos. I placed the resulting photos in a cute album and gave them to my mother on her birthday. She was so happy. Each photo I had carefully rescued and she was thankful.
Eventually, as a young mom, I would print out the pictures of my early childhood. With each picture, my milestones were made evident. I had been observed and remarked upon just like the wildlife animals my father had studied. And I was loved. He loved me. He hadn't stayed in my life much after the age of four, but there was a time when he had wanted to be a big part of my life.
This week, I was thinking of those slideshows. I was thinking how technology changes. I thought of how I take digital images now that don't sit in a case and in many ways are very impermanent. Most of my pictures are impossible to hold. I'm not sure if that's how memories should be, but that's how they are for me.
I thought of how I only once saw my father with a camera. Little by little I realized how strange that was. If he had taken all those pictures when I was a baby, then he must have had a camera back then. Where had it gone?
The time my father took my picture had been a special request on my part. I had been saying at my elementary school back in the city that my father had a pet porcupine but no one believed me. I pleaded with him to take a picture of me with Blondie, the porcupine, as proof. He did. That's her eating a banana on the front porch.
It was a black and white photo, so when he mailed the pictures to me at my mother's house, the blob sitting next to me still wasn't enough to convince the naysayers.
Aside from that, he never took another picture of me This week, I thought about his disinterest. What had happened? I wondered about asking him but then I wouldn't be really asking my father; I'd be asking my father with Alzheimer's. Most of us want to forget the hard times of the past. He is now able to forget more than most. I'll have to think whether or not to be gutsy once again to ask him about the slides.
Until then, I think I have an answer which stops my monkey mind from wondering. I think I know. I only take pictures when I'm happy. I simply can't use my camera when I'm sad. I think my father had been very happy those years he filled up his case with memories. I think he really had hoped for love and life. When his marriage to my mother ended, those hopes stopped too. He married a
That knowledge of my father's happiness and sadness is in me today. Alhumdulillah for the ability to process. I pray for his last days on this earth to be filled with peace.
As for me, I'll keep smiling in Giza while I hop onto one of many VW vans we use as micro-buses here in Egypt. It was a wonderful surprise to see them all here! I'd like to believe that my camper van ended up here to find a new life of happiness, just as I did.