The Children’s Picnic
Seven girls sit on the lawn around a picnic blanket. The year is 1919 or 1920, so of course they are all wearing dresses. They range in age from three to about fifteen. One girl wears a bow in her hair; she is six years old, and her name is Margaret. We don’t know the names of any of the others, because 81 years later, Margaret can no longer remember who they were. The teenager might have been her cousin Phyllis, she thinks.
The photographer takes three pictures of the children’s picnic, which will make it possible to pinpoint its location — on the lawn above the kitchen — even after eight decades have elapsed and almost everything has changed. In the background of one photo, a martin house and a large bell stand loom above the unfamiliar foliage. In the first two photos, the girls look stiff and serious — all except for Margaret, who grins impishly, at home here on her Great Uncle George’s farm. Then they go back to their picnic, raising spoons to their lips. The pet collie, whose name is Snap, appears as a blur of movement off to the left. Margaret’s eyes follow the dog; you can almost hear her calling for him to come. But he isn’t interested in joining this strange feast, which seems to include nothing but a small pile of oak leaves in the center of the blanket.
Charles in the Garden
Two-year-old Charles stands in a large patch of turnips, or perhaps rutabagas. Behind him, the barn is brand-new, painted a shade of darkness that must be red. Above the corncrib, rows of fruit trees where we have only ever known a field stretch all the way up to Sapsucker Ridge, which is dimly visible in the distance. In dreams, I sometimes visit another version of the hollow that lies right over a ridge we’d somehow overlooked, where the orchard was never bulldozed out in the 1950s and the old farmhouse was spared its extreme makeover into a faux plantation home. Everything is twice as big and twice as far — the way things looked when I was small.
Margaret’s little brother still has uncut, blonde curls and wears a long-sleeved white dress. He stands with his feet planted firmly in the garden path and grins at something off to the photographer’s left. With one arm raised he points high above his head, as if leading the ranks of turnips on to glory.
Light and Shadows
In the middle of the road below and to the right of my front porch, Jacob Plummer stands in his Sunday best with one hand on his hips and the other resting on the rear wheel of an open carriage. His wife Mollie sits up in the carriage holding the reins. They’re hauling what look like steel gates, or perhaps the springs for a child’s crib. The horse has his head up, clearly intent on getting back to the barn. At the top of the photo, a limb from the balm-of-Gilead polar tree that used to stand at the corner of the wall until its death in the early 1970s blocks much of the background. The bottom third of the photo is a double exposure. On the near side of the road, the sky starts over with much less balm-of-Gilead in it — a sky which, judging from the sharpness of the shadows cast by man and horse and carriage, must be a clear blue and not this barren field of white that we see.
The hired man and his son have paused in their harrowing of the freshly plowed field. It’s spring; the trees at the edge of the field still look skeletal, and there are splashes of white that could be shadbush. The newly emancipated stones have dried in the sun, making them clearly visible against the darker soil. The man is bearded under a floppy felt hat, and wears a long-sleeved white shirt and dark pants held up by suspenders. In the first photo, the camera is tilted, making him appear to stand at an angle to the ground, like the gromon on a sundial. In the second photo, they’ve turned away from the photographer and gone back to work, the boy astride the left horse holding a switch, the man behind with one foot on the harrow and his hands on his hips as the iron teeth sink once more into the mountain’s thin red clay.
Richard is twelve, and doesn’t know what to do with his hands. In one photo, we see him in profile against a tree with his hands held stiffly behind his back. In another photo, he stands in the road halfway up the hill toward the barn with his hands thrust into the bib pockets of his overalls, frowning at the camera. In a third photo, taken at the same spot, his little sister has joined him. His hands have now disappeared behind the front of his overalls, elbows a little less awkward at his sides as he stares at the ground to his right. A straw hat nearly hides his new haircut. Margaret appears to imitate his posture, resting her weight on one leg and thrusting a hand into the pleats of her dress. The dog is nowhere to be seen. Stifling the vivacity that will carry her through nearly ninety years of life, she looks as grownup as she can, and gives her best impression of utter boredom.