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.