I can’t stop staring at this photograph, though it fairly twists up my insides. Despite the vaguely unpleasant mix of light-headedness and fluttering heartbeats triggered by the rich memories conjured up, I am transfixed. Mesmerized. I’m staring into my own eyes spanning a yawning gap of 36 or 37 years. One one end, looking into an exhilaratingly unknown future, with absolutely zero idea of what may come. Perhaps wondering whether my older self will have figured things out somewhere down the line. On the other end, looking backwards in time, desperate to catch a glimpse of that deer-in-the-headlights boy’s thoughts, the same age then as my younger son is now, give or take.
If we were to meet today, this boy and I, would he feel pride, or disappointment, in the life he and I have lived?
I honestly don’t know.
I stumbled on this photograph of a photograph in the midst of what has become an annual event marked by melancholy and reminiscing. My maternal grandmother passed away four years ago yesterday — a seismic event still felt palpably by my mother’s side of the family. Still felt by me. Glutton for punishment that I apparently am, I have not afforded myself the opportunity to let my grandmother’s death clear my system. Rather, I have been doggedly blogging around and within its periphery beginning a few days after she died. And for the past year, I have been pounding a book intended to honor her into the keys of my MacBook’s keypad. Running so many laps around Memory Lane that I have lost count.
The photo above, plucked from my mother’s shoebox of pictures in the wake of my grandmother’s death, owns a permanent address on Memory Lane. I have passed it repeatedly, rubbernecking at a sprint every time. The boy with the tongue and the boy with the dread, Pete and Teddy, respectively, are still with me. Pete lives in Calistoga with his family, and thankfully emerged from those recent wine country fires in one piece. Teddy lives in Chicago, newly married on a gorgeous Florida beach, to a woman who sees as much in him as I always have. Pete’s comical expression is pretty typical for that time period; actually, pretty typical for any time period. Funny enough, almost, to make me forgive him for smashing my borrowed electric guitar at a college lip synch competition of his.
The purple tongue is admittedly vexing, because I can assure you that my parents stocked nothing in our kitchen cupboards capable of staining anyone’s tongue that particular color. Or any color, for that matter. Powdered milk and oatmeal molasses cookies and buckwheat pancakes (“thick-ass buckwheat flapjacks,” as Pete reminds me) don’t leave that kind of mark. I’d put my money on a contraband grape lollipop snuck into 115 Robineau Road amidst the chaos of my little birthday party. I suspect Pete knows precisely how many licks it takes to get to the center of that cartoon owl’s Tootsie Pop.
In Teddy’s face, I sense a certain wariness. A concern about what might happen next. At the time, he was working his way through the complicated dynamics of his parents’ divorce, and I recall that this took a toll on his emotional well-being. On the other hand, Teddy knew how emphatic my parents — particularly my father — were about sugar and artificial coloring and health foods and such. His flat expression is equally likely to have been inspired by a fear of my father’s anticipated reaction to Pete’s Purple Tongue. Maybe my dad would insist on “entertaining” us boys in the backyard with yet another episode of breaking bricks with his bare fist. Thrilling to me; terrifying to my buddies, who always read into the brick-breaking some sort of message to them. In this case, maybe “This is what will happen to the next friend of Keir’s who brings a Tootsie Pop into my house — CRAAAAAACKKK!” It’s possible 12 year-old Teddy foresaw this scene, as I suggested in a text I sent to 49 year-old Ted this morning along with the photo. He responded, “My formative years consisted of 48% dread. My apologies for the facial expression.”
No apologies necessary, my man. That still leaves 52% for the magic part.
My 12 year-old self may or may not agree, but by this point, I might argue that a life made of 52% magic and 48% dread is a life well-lived.
Thanks for reading.