Recently I sent my brother a copy of a memoir that our uncle had written late in life. It’s a cheerful account of a well-lived life with lots of photos. My brother said, “You’re just wallowing in the family history.” I said, “Can you re-word that so it’s less pejorative?” He said, “You’re trying to build your own identity out of the past.”
Busted. But so what? Is that bad? Unnatural? Especially since my life (most of which he knows little or nothing about) has been so intense that I have to push it back a little with family genealogy in order to preserve myself. I have crossed sociological barriers imposed by education, income and location, to the point of needing a little family continuity. I don’t think that’s unique.
Anyway, since I ended up with the family albums and have at hand the ability to electronically scan, compose and narrate, it’s a natural task that other members of the family enjoy -- even treasure. Indeed, it is with the understanding that I’ll make use of the family albums and my grandmother’s journals -- not let them just go to dust.
“Family Secrets: Acts of Memory and Imagination” by Annette Kuhn is a small work in which this feminist author looks at photos, especially family photos, to see what she can draw out of them. Years ago I offended my mother (what a prickly family!) by giving her a book about the Jungian meanings in seemingly random snapshots. There was a lot about double-exposures wherein a lake is somehow imposed across a female abdomen or she is pictured with a tree growing out of her head. Amazing how many photos are like that!
This is different. Six chapters analyze the author’s life, beginning with a charming photo of herself as a child holding a budgie in her hand. She tells us what we see, she tells us what her mother wrote on the back, and then she goes through the whole complex of family: older brothers, married and gone; a step-father who takes photos of children in their homes; a mother who sees her as a possession; and wartime in England. The second chapter “moves” to a film about a deaf girl learning to talk, thus breaking the isolation that is a mystery to her. The third explores the beginning of unhappiness as the stepfather drifts out of the family and she is costumed by her mother for competitions, once winning in a get-up covered in floor detritis from a picture show house.
Four is a little more abstract and examines the interplay between the Coronation of Elizabeth II, a beautiful and highly controlled young mother, and her prominent guest: Salote, Queen of the Tonga. Much as England loved Lilibet, they almost loved the six-foot-three-inch Salote more because of her warmth, directness, and genuine pleasure. Five has no photos: it is about a girl who escapes her class -- and therefore her family -- by passing the “eleven-plus” exam so that in spite of giving off the wrong social cues and wearing a uniform too big when new and too worn when fitting, she receives the kind of education that equips one to analyze photos in a rarified and admired way. Six goes to the national level, examining public images to discover their deeper meanings.
How does this relate to me? I had two educations, really. One was my undergrad training at Northwestern University, which I betrayed by coming West to teach high school English on an Indian reservation. I mean, the education was useful to me in a way no one on the rez wanted it to be -- nor did it make me a prosperous and compliant contributor to culture as defined by NU. It was of great benefit to Bob Scriver.
My second education was at the University of Chicago at the height of the post-modern wave, though I was in the little tide-pool of preparation for ministry. Nevertheless, it took me into realms of thought where few of my family or old friends could follow. My mother said, “Couldn’t you just marry a nice minister and settle down?” Only a few weeks ago I lost a friend when I tried to explain to her that she couldn’t understand the things I learned there. She saw no reason why a good Catholic girl like her wouldn’t be able to answer any question or think every thought about religion. (In short, she had no concept of the inconceivable.) She thought I was saying she was dumb. Male ancestors, including my father, began to explore some of this territory long ago, but aged out and died long before po-mo. Even my older minister friends don’t follow. My own grasp is weak. Thank goodness now we’re turning back to post-po-mo and narrativity, which makes sense to me.
What also has changed recently and much less benignly is the insistence that education must equal economic success. I run across more and more essays affirming that people who go to fancy colleges make more money because if their “people” didn’t make more money in the first place, they never would have been admitted, and that they take highly placed jobs because of connections -- not because of expertise, experience, or other qualifications. Call it the Bush Phenomenon. “Fabulous job, Brownie!”
Probably it would be hard to find a place -- even Washington, D.C. -- where that Phenomenon is more active than in small town Montana. Always has been (vigilantes were Masonic-based, remember?) and always will be. It’s just as strong with the present Democratic governor as it was with the previous Republican Nancy. Except that now the balance is changed by an influx of bi-coastals with money, complex shifts in the economy, and ... something else. I’m not sure quite what. Maybe it’s that people like me are networking our reflections and analyses.
Don’t tell my brother.