March 16, 2023

My Brother Was a Monkey

My brother was a monkey.

Not really, of course. But many years ago – many years ago, like forty-five or so – he liked to climb things, like this chair in my grandmother's house:

and this tree in my grandmother's backyard:

Also shown in this picture are my cousins Carrie and Heather

and this door frame in my grandmother's house:


Come to think of it, maybe he was only a monkey at my grandmother's house!

In any case, what I prize about old photographs like these is not just that they remind us what we used to be like – including the fact that my brother was a monkey, which I had completely forgotten – but also that they remind us what the places we used to spend our time were like. I especially love pictures taken at my grandmother's house; I always see things in them I hadn't thought about in years – like the painting of the man praying over his bread on the wall of that eating area just behind Jeff in the second door-frame-climbing picture; and the flowerdy wallpaper on that same wall; and the flowerdy curtains and flowerdy seat-cushion in that same room, which you can't see in the bottom picture of Jeff clinging to the top of the door frame, but which you can see through the open door on the right side of the frame in the first picture above, the chair-climbing picture, and which you can see (the curtains, at least) have been changed by the time the third picture above, the one where Jeff is preparing to climb the door frame, was made, two or three years later; and the black bell on the wall just beside the door frame Jeff is climbing; and the black telephone mounted to the wall on the other side of the door frame; and the lighting fixtures; the plastic plants; the furniture…. It's all precious to see now, and it all fills me with that combination of happiness and melancholy that is nostalgia.

I've written this before, but though there are many wonderful things about my life now, sometimes I really miss the life I had forty-five years ago. And not just because my brother was a monkey.

And also not because, apparently, Tab was readily available back then.

February 23, 2023

My First Grade Class Picture, 1973

You might be able to tell this without my point it out, but I "fixed" the letters on the sign in Photoshop. It says exactly what the real sign said, but I replaced the text, which was too blurry to read in the original picture.

This is my first-grade class picture from about a million years ago – actually, not too far from fifty years ago – at Bethesda Elementary.

I'm the rather dour looking one on the front row, far left (as you're looking at the picture, but far right from the perspective of those of us on the other side of the lens – though I realize as I type this that I may not have known right from left at the time.). I don't know why I looked so unhappy to be there; maybe I was, even though I remember first grade happily and not in a way that explains my expression.

Our teacher, the only adult in the photograph, was Mrs. McDowall. She was an old lady – old, at least, by 1973's standards of "old"; society's standards, and my standards, for what constitutes "old" have changed a lot since then. I'm only a few years (I believe about six) away from the age she was in this picture, and I don't think of myself as "old." Not really, anyway; sometimes, in fact, I forget that I'm not still a teenager. In any case, I don't think someone in their early 60s is considered "old" in our culture anymore.

Actually, not everything I've written above is completely true: I do think of myself as "old," at least sometimes, and sometimes I refer to myself that way. Even if I'm really not, I sure feel old sometimes. And looking at pictures like this doesn't help. (Sigh…)

So, anyway…what I most remember about Mrs. McDowall is that she rewarded us for correct answers on (I think) math problems with a couple of M&Ms from a can, like a Maxwell House coffee can but with the M&Ms logo on it – did such a thing actually exist? Maybe it was just a coffee can and I am misremembering. But I can see her going down the aisles between desks and doling out M&Ms as she looked over our math problems, and in my memory, she was doling out those M&Ms from a big black tin can bearing the M&Ms logo. Maybe I'll do a quick Google search to see if I can find evidence that such a thing actually did exist.

Here's something else I remember about first grade: at some point when I was in Mrs. McDowall's class, my family went to Stone Mountain Park, and I was allowed to get one item from one of the gift shops there. What I chose was a small toy pocketknife; I don't know if it was actually sharp – probably not – but I believe the blade was real metal and it looked kind of real, despite being only about an inch long and having a red plastic handle. I took it to school; I don't think I was showing it off, and I'm sure I wasn't threatening anyone with it, but Mrs. McDowall confiscated it, as I now realize she should have, telling me I could have it back at the end of the year. I don't know if this happened near the beginning of the school year and I held on to the promise of getting my knife back for many months, or if it was near the end of the school year and it was only for a few weeks or maybe even days. However long it was, when the last day of school finally came, I reminded her about the confiscated knife and asked for it back. She remembered, or at least pretended to remember, and searched through her desk and a supply cabinet, but couldn't, and didn't, find it. She never found it! I never got it back! I think she mumbled some vague apology and went about with her life. I guess I went about with my life, too; I don't care about the knife now, and probably didn't just a few hours later, but I still remember.

Looking back, I realize that Richard Nixon was president when I started her class! Watergate was still some months in the future (and I wasn't aware of it when it did happen). It was a different country then. In 1973, you could buy a toy pocketknife in a gift shop and take it to school and not make national news; you just had it confiscated, and lost, and you never got it back. Which now that I think about it, wasn't a bad way to deal with the issue.

Looking back at the picture, I can say for sure that at least two of the people shown here are no longer living; Cynthia Drummond, in the top row, died of cancer a couple of years ago, and Angela King, also in the top row of this photo, died of a heart attack about a year ago. I know about their deaths because of social media; as far as I know the rest of the people in the photograph are still alive.

It was a long, long time ago. I remember it well, but I also don't remember it at all. Sometimes it's difficult to believe that I was even alive in 1973. I'm glad I have photographic evidence like this to prove that I was.

August 11, 2022

Me and Darren, 1972

It was great being a kid fifty years ago, especially if you had a best friend like Darren to eat Cheerios and get strong with.

This picture shows me and Darren on the driveway of the house I lived in then in Clarkston. (I'm the one on the left, wearing shoes and socks.) If there's a story about that overturned kid-sized wheelbarrow beside us, I don't know what it is; I have no memory of that wheelbarrow. Or of the green plastic ridey-toy visible on the left side of the picture.

I don't remember those things, but this is one of the things I do remember from back then:

Probably around the time this picture was taken, about 1971 or 1972, Cheerios (the breakfast cereal) was running a TV commercial intended to convince kids like me and Darren that eating Cheerios would give you energy and make you strong. It worked. The commercial worked, I mean; I doubt the cereal actually gave you energy and made you strong, at least not nearly as dramatically as the commercial showed it doing to the run-down stick figure character, but Darren and I sure believed it did.

One Saturday afternoon we confirmed this belief by first trying to lift the sofa (whether in my house or Darren's, I don't remember). We couldn't do it – look at us in the picture; we were scrawny little kids! But then we ate a couple of handfuls of Cheerios (whether from my kitchen or Darren's, I don't remember), and then, Shazam!, we could lift the sofa! Cheerios made us strong, just like in the commercial!

The sofa probably wasn't really that heavy to start with, and it took both of us to lift it anyway, but we were convinced that the Cheerios had given us strength we hadn't had before. We didn't talk about whether we had been giving it our all on the pre-Cheerios lift attempt. (I suspect we hadn't, but admitting that–even discussing it–would have been heresy.)

Why two five-year-old kids decided that being able to lift a living room sofa meant they were strong, I can't tell you. Also, why two five-year-old kids who also watched Popeye cartoons were eating Cheerios instead of spinach…well, that one is kind of obvious, isn't it?

I have no idea where Darren is today; after my family moved to Maryland, not too long after this picture was taken, Darren and I stopped being friends. We didn't have a falling out or anything – five-year-old kids don't – we just lived several hundred miles apart, which made it hard to get together and play, you know? And way back then we didn't have e-mail or texting or social media, so when somebody moved away, they were just gone. I wonder if that happens to kids these days: do they lose touch with people when they move, or if you know someone, does technology make that forever? In any case, I would like to know what became of Darren, and I'd love to be able to ask him if he remembers the Cheerios event–and if he remembers it the same way I do.

June 16, 2022

Me and Jeff in the Lilburn Den, 1973 or 74

Shown here are me and Jeff, in our Lilburn house's den as I have no memory of it ever being.

This had to be 1973 or 1974, sometime in the first year in which we lived in this house. It was in this room, the den, that every year we put up our tree and had Christmas – though in this picture the room is clearly not decorated for the season; I suspect this picture was made shortly after our first Christmas in this house – maybe even before we'd ever had a Christmas here! In any case, though I do remember lots of Christmases in this room, I don't remember the room being furnished and arranged quite like this.

Some of what you see here I do remember: Behind me and Jeff, largely in shadow, is the house's official entrance – not quite big enough to earn the title "foyer," though maybe that's what it was – where the front door was, though we hardly ever used that door; we mostly came in through the garage (which led into the kitchen). There's an orange light fixture hanging down, and a cabinet against the wall, with a candle holder and a photo album on top of it. We kept our photo albums in this cabinet (except for the album that was on top of it), and I remember looking through those photo albums often through the years. Let me pause here to express my eternal gratitude to Mom for arranging all of our pictures in photo albums – not to mention for making sure those pictures were taken in the first place (almost certainly including this one).

Okay, so that entrance, with the cabinet and light fixture and even those wall sconces, I do remember. But most of the other stuff you can see in this picture I don't remember.

Behind us, nearly in the corner, sits a rocking chair; it looks like a good rocking chair, but I really don't remember having it. Behind that, actually in the corner, stands either a small bookcase or a rolling cart; whatever it was, it appears to have books stacked on it. On the left side of the picture you can see the back of a very dated old metal office chair; Dad obviously had his desk there then, though I mostly remember his desk being along a different wall (and the desk at which I often sat playing Frogger and Space Invaders on the Apple II we had in the late 70s and early 80s was a different desk anyway). To the right of that, near the rocking chair, with a squarish vase of fake flowers atop it, squats a short metal cabinet of sliding drawers that Dad still has in his office at home today (though in a different house, of course).

I don't know if anyone else is remotely interested in these musings or not. I doubt that me describing old photographs of places I remember from my youth, and trying to explain what I see in the photographs, appeals to too many other folks. But it means a lot to me to look back at these old pictures, in this case from almost fifty years ago, especially when the picture shows something I don't remember.

It also gives me a good excuse to point out, as I think I've noted before, that Jeff and I used to be cute little kids! What happened?!

June 02, 2022

Me in Pearl's Apartment, 1992

Man, I used to be young!

These two pictures, showing me without a trace of gray in my hair or beard, were taken in my friend Pearl's apartment, almost certainly by Pearl, thirty years ago in 1992. (It may well have been 1993, but "twenty-nine years ago" doesn't have a satisfying evenness to it. So let's stick with 1992.) I was all of twenty-five years old – practically still a kid! (Unless I was twenty-six, but again that isn't as satisfying a number – but a twenty-six-year-old is also practically a kid.)

I'm still wearing those large-framed glasses that I got back when I had really long and thick hair. The frames didn't seem so large when I first got them, amongst all that hair, but as my college graduation approached, I got my hair cut in a (misguided) attempt at looking respectable (just a couple of years before these pictures were taken, actually), and with the shorter hair the frames looked too big. To me now, anyway – I guess I didn't mind then, though, because I kept those glasses for a really long time, I think over ten years. One of the perks of being young – as I used to be, once upon a time; did I mention that? – is that your eyes don't change much from year to year, and you can keep the same glasses for a decade. Now I wear "progressive" lenses (which doesn't mean they're in favor of LGBTQ rights or gun control, though being my glasses they'd damn well better be; it means they're like bifocals – you know, old folks' glasses – but without the line) but less than a year after getting my current pair, I can barely read with them on. (Thankfully I can see just fine to drive, though.)

When these pictures were taken I'd been working at ExecuTrain for a couple of years. The shirt I'm wearing, a charcoal-gray button-down dress shirt, was one of my work shirts; I tried to shake things up by never wearing plain old white dress shirts. In fact, I had a decent collection of plaid, checked, and denim dress shirts; I fancied myself something of a sartorial iconoclast, a rebel – but really I wasn't. Especially since at work I had to wear a tie and dress pants, which I did loyally for several years (my idea of "dress pants" then was mostly khakis, either tan, olive, or navy, but they were close enough to dress pants and I wasn't alone in wearing them). This picture was probably taken on a Saturday night, so I didn't need my tie or khakis.

I'd like to add that, in addition to a decent collection of plaid, checked, and denim dress shirts, I had a good collection of cartoon and novelty ties – Sesame Street ties, Peanuts ties, Dr. Seuss ties – and a decent amount of Christmas ties. I still have many of them today, and sometimes I actually miss wearing a tie every day. Until I put one on, that is; then I don't miss it so much.

Speaking of clothing, I entered the corporate world at the end of an era; when I started at ExecuTrain in 1990, most of my male coworkers wore suits – or at least dress shirts and khakis, like me – and women were required to wear, by the old fashioned and even-then-out-of-date dress code, dresses or skirts – definitely not pants or pant suits. A decade later, I could have worn just what I'm wearing in this picture to work. In fact, there were times in the early 2000s when I could have worn what I'm wearing in these pictures to work and been overdressed, since some of my coworkers would occasionally wear shorts and T-shirts.

May 26, 2022

Me as a Member of the 5th Dimension, 1972

I feel a little bit sorry for people who weren't around in the late 1960s/early 1970s: they probably don't have any pictures of themselves in outfits like this. They probably never even got dressed quite this way at all.

But, hey, this is what we wore in 1971!

Jealous, aren't you?

Even at the age of four, which I believe I was in this picture, wasn't I remarkably hip? With my tousled hair and closed eyes, I look like I'd just been awakened from a deep sleep and put into these clothes, probably so I could go on as a last minute substitute for an ailing member of the 5th Dimension.

It was, after all, the dawning of the Age of Aquarius!

What? You don't think that an upcoming gig with the 5th Dimension is at least a semi-plausible rationale for my being dressed like this? Well, then, I don't know why I was wearing this outfit. There must be some reasonable explanation for it – but what it is, I don't know.

Maybe just the fact that it was 1971 is explanation enough.

May 19, 2022

Chris and Jeff at Aunt Lois's House, 1972

Doing a little math in my head, I arrive at this incredible fact: since Aunt Lois – in whose house this photograph was taken, about fifty years ago – was born in 1918, when this picture was made she was only 53 or 54 years old – a year or two younger than I am right now. I'm older than Aunt Lois!

But of course, I'm not. Aunt Lois – who was in fact my great aunt; she was Dad's aunt, but because he called her Aunt Lois, I called her Aunt Lois – lived to be 85, and when she left us in 2003, more than eighteen years ago, I was only 36; I may be as old now as Aunt Lois was in my earliest memories of her, but I am not really "older than Aunt Lois."

In 1998, they – I'm not completely sure who "they" are in this case; her children and grandchildren, probably – had a birthday celebration for Aunt Lois at her house when she turned 80. It was the last time I ever saw her, and the last time I ever went to that wonderful house in Scottdale when she still lived there. I swear, she looked the same in 1998 as she did in 1972, when she would keep me sometimes while Mom was at work or running errands or doing whatever she did. (Aunt Lois probably did look the same, probably basically was the same, in that she hadn't changed her hairstyle in all those years, and frankly I wouldn't be surprised if that day in 1998 she was wearing a dress that she had back in 1972.) I told Aunt Lois that she looked like she hadn't aged in twenty-five years, and she said to me, "Oh, you're so sweet! If I had a quarter, I'd give it to you."

(There is, actually, one way in which I can I say she did look different: her glasses were noticeably thicker, not surprisingly, and the lenses made her eyes look unnaturally large when I first saw her straight on.)

I don't think the fact that Aunt Lois looked the same to me in 1998 as she did in 1972 says something about her youthful appearance at 80; instead, it says something about how, in the second half of the twentieth century, 50 was old, and someone who was 50 looked old. Aunt Lois at 80 didn't look like a 54-year-old; at 54, she looked like an old lady. By the standards of the time, I suppose she was.

But Aunt Lois isn't even in this picture I've chosen for this musing. I recognize the room as being in her house because of the white paneled walls with the chair rail, and...and just because I know that was Aunt Lois's house. (Uncle Arthur's, too, but it always felt to me more like hers – probably because when I was a kid and spent a day there, Uncle Arthur was at work.) I can't see it well enough to say for sure, but I think that plate on the wall at the top of the frame is an Ingleside Presbyterian Church plate; it seems like exactly the kind of thing this house would have adorning its walls. This is a house I treasure; it was one of the many wonderful places where I spent time when I was a kid – planting acorns in the yard (none of which, as best I can tell, actually grew into trees, but I sure remember planting them), looking at the Sears catalog inside (the Christmas Wish Book, which may have been a year or two out of date when I looked at it at her house, but it showed great toys), making milkshakes in the kitchen with that old manual milkshake-maker she had (it wasn't a blender – you put in some milk, some ice cream, closed it up, and then you shook it until you had a milkshake).

After she and Uncle Arthur were both gone, the family sold the house to someone who fixed it up, turning the attic (I'm told) into a small second floor. I've driven by the house a few times and it looks nice, but I would love to see the inside. I'm sure it's changed, but maybe it would also look mostly the same, just as Aunt Lois did the last time I saw her, very nearly twenty years ago now.