Recalculating

eisenberg_1-071411.jpg
Prints and Photographs Division, the White Collection/Library of Congress
Detail from ‘The Seventh Thousanth and Eighth Hundredth and Sixty Third Performance at the Diving Board L.G.H., 1911,’ an album of snapshots by the photographer F. Holland Day. This photograph and the one on page 58 are from Verna Posever Curtis’s Photographic Memory: The Album in the Age of Photography, which has just been published by Aperture

“Who is that?” Adam asked, pointing at a boy on a swing set. Adam was helping, pasting photographs into an album at the kitchen table. His mother, rolling out a piecrust at the counter, paused to look.

“That’s Uncle Tommy,” she said. “Don’t you get flour on that.”

Next there were some grown-ups sitting on Gramma and Grampa’s couch. Next a lot of people in front of extra-tall corn, kids in front. “Is this Aunt Rosalie?”

“That’s Rosalie all right—look at the hair.”

“Are you there?”

His mother peered over at the snapshot he was studying. “That’s me. The smallest one, over on the end there, with the smocked dress and the pigtails.”

Adam considered the sad-looking little girl. He would have liked to pat the girl’s head, but now she was just a bitsy kernel inside his mother. “Smocked dress. Smocked dress,” he said, stacking the sounds up like the wooden blocks he used to play with. The tallest of the children was blurry. He must have moved. “Who is that boy, at the other end?”

“Let me—oh. That’s Phillip.”

“Phillip?”

“The oldest. Your Uncle Phillip.”

“Oh…” Adam studied the picture and reviewed the jungle of legs he’d clambered about in at the last family occasion, belonging to cousins and aunts and uncles and second cousins and great-aunts and great-uncles. “He was at Gramma and Grampa’s house on Easter?”

“You’ve never met him. He’s far away.”

“Is he older than Uncle Tommy?”

“Yes.”

“Is he older than Uncle Frank?”

“What did I say, Adam? Phillip’s the oldest. Are you going to put that into the album, or are you going to wear it out looking at it?”

Adam bent obediently over his task for a moment. “What was Uncle Phillip like when he was my age?

“I wouldn’t know,” his mother said. “I wasn’t born yet.”

“But…what was he like after you were born?”

She could tell Adam about Uncle Tommy when he was little if he wanted to know, she said, or about Uncle Frank or Aunt Rosalie or Aunt Hazel or Uncle Ray. But given the difference in their ages, she and her brother Phillip might as well have grown up in different households. She rotated the piecrust a severe quarter-turn and bore down on it with the rolling pin. “He went away east to college, and he never came back, except once, when I was twelve, to visit. Daddy—Grandfather Jack—had expected him to take over the farm. Grandfather Jack…


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