Recently Summerly expressed interest in learning ASL, so I pounced on the opportunity and excavated my Baby Signs books from the now very narrow section of “parenting babies” references I’ve kept in the basement. She thumbed through one book and came upon a photograph tucked into the pages. As soon as she handed it to me, the memory came back: I was staying at my mom’s house on a visit to Virginia while living in Connecticut over ten years ago, sitting on her sofa and learning some new ways to communicate with my new son. As a bookmark I was using a photograph I’d found in an old album earlier that day because I felt it was the perfect portrait of parenthood. Here it is, fresh from October of 1982:
The little boy was a neighbor, and the woman reflected in the glass is his mother. I could write a novella on this image, beginning with the boy’s bowl cut, his little fingers gripping the muntin on the door, his baby belly under that shirt with lap shoulders surely made by Gerber, the expression of guileless bemusement he’s wearing. And his mother’s mouth, just visible behind the camera, sporting a smile so broad it creases a circumflex into her cheek as she’s perched on the balls of her sockfeet in a squat to capture her child at eye level. Not to be overlooked is the fact that they’re on opposite sides of a door that is also a window while the lens of her attention is focused on him, on freezing that moment in time onto film, while he gazes elsewhere. There’s also the gauzy, ethereal feeling to the light, partly due to the double exposure–a photograph taken on top of a photograph–which is so often how parenthood feels. Here you are, beholding this human who may bear your resemblance in some fashion but is completely his or her own person, embodying a form that you only know how to see through your own eyes. There’s yet another door and another window in one of the exposures or the other, evidence of passages beyond and through, avenues that sometimes beckon and sometimes repel, pathways that can be closed with intention, opened in invitation, or locked against our every inclination.
And there’s that line of fire licking up at the linoleum along the bottom edge, no doubt the result of light landing on the film when someone opened the back of the camera before the roll had rewound safely back into the blackness of its canister, a reminder that light, while essential to creating a photograph, has the power to burn. Used in just the right applications and amounts, it can create a beautiful composition but, just like so many other things, can wreak ruin if administered in deleterious ways. There’s that child-sized table and chair set in the second exposure (or is that an ironing board?), and what I’m almost positive is a little forlorn-looking white poodle tucked almost impossibly under the contour of the woman’s upraised arm: signs of life, of work and play, of so much else going on to operate the functionality of a family.
After inspecting this photograph for very many minutes, I began to wonder: is the woman reflected in the glass in the first exposure as I’d initially assumed, or was her image part of the second exposure overlaid atop the first? Was she the photographer capturing her son as he stood there on the threshold, or was her image secondarily applied to the film, captured elsewhere at a different time in a context unrelated to the little boy at the door? Was she engaged in the moment or an interloper on the scene, an accidental juxtaposition precipitated by a combination of mechanical and human error? Was she the woman I’d assumed she was in this moment for all of these years, the adoringly proud parent with her focus funneled through the F-stop to suspend this memory in perpetuity? Or was she a specter interfacing with the boy in the doorway, just another of the intersecting angles showcased in this composite image?
I’m sure a professional photographer could answer this question, but I’m content to hold both possibilities as a reflection in and of itself, just as parenthood is a picture made up of blurred lines and counterpoints of ambivalence, a confluence of assuredness tangled up with second-guessing, a swirl of light and color in shades of gray, a cloudburst at noon on a sunny day. The composition of life, like any other kind of art, engenders a multiplicity of interpretations that all exist in a breathless simultaneity, a beautiful nebulousness that actively defies singularity. The line between the known and unknown is as fine as the spine of the tiniest feather, as diaphanous as a thin veil of smoke throwing everything just the slightest bit out of focus. All we can do to impress a precious moment into the future is squint through that viewfinder, invite the right balance of light, twist the lens toward clarity, release the shutter, and hope for the best.