Photos and Text from Lineage

 

 

To give you a sense of the progress of Lineage here are images and excerpts of text that accompany them, from the sections of the book.

According to an inscription on the back of the photograph the people in the portrait are William and Flora Ross and their six children. Pictured from left to right are Chauncy, on the arm of the sofa; the semi-smiling bearded father William; Louise standing to his left; Anne, seated in front of her; Will, the youngest child; Clara, also standing; Flora, their mother, seated; and, holding up the end, the black clad eldest son, Charles. Despite the humorless expressions on their faces, the portrait suggests a close and affectionate family. Note how casually Will is leaning against the back rest between his oldest sisters, how Chauncy rests an arm on his father’s shoulder, how William’s left arm embraces his youngest daughter and how she nestles against him, how Charles leans on his mother’s shoulder and stands semi-relaxed on one leg with the other crossed. Could the father’s amused expression be pleasure in the company of his wife and children, the informality of the poses a reflection of family intimacy? Given no further evidence to contradict the image, I read it according to my inclinations.

I guess the date of the photograph to be sometime in 1929. My mother’s labeling of the people in the picture helps. On the left side of the canoe are my uncle Gene, the youngest of my mother’s brothers, four years younger, and my grandmother Anna. Gene looks to be between one and two years old, which would make my grandmother twenty-nine. The woman in the middle of the boat is my grandmother’s second oldest sister, Frances, thirteen years older than my grandmother; Frances’ son William is beside her. On the right side, at the bow of the canoe, the two somber children are my mother, Marie, then around six, and her oldest brother, Paul, then around eight. Bobby, the brother who was born between Marie and Gene, is not in the picture.

 

My grandmother was forty-two when I was born. I have almost no memory of her except in a loose patterned dress and never knew her when she was young. The dress she wears in this photograph is unusually smart to be part of my grandmother’s wardrobe and she herself seems slim and attractive, a pretty young mother. Except for the labels across the top of the picture I would not have recognized my mother, with her blonde hair and serious expression and bright frock, or my uncle Gene, though with study I would have identified my uncle Paul and my great-aunt Frances and my grandmother.

One part of the upstairs sticks in my mind.  In the northwest corner of that front bedroom was a small closet, set in the space between the west wall (the wall facing Cottage Street) and the point where the ceiling above the stairs slanted up behind the north wall. I think there were drawers built into the low space to the right of the closet entrance—I’m not certain it actually had a door—but the unique feature of the closet was the way it angled up above the stairs until it met the floor of the attic. The entrance to the attic was in the hallway, and hardly ever used, though some items were stored in it over the years. The wedge of space above the stairs was too sharply slanted to hold very much securely, but blankets and boxes were stored there and it was possible to clamber over them and slip back into the darkness of the wedge, especially if you were a very little boy. It was eventually a forbidden area—my grandmother dreaded the notion of a child falling through the ceiling and tumbling down the stairs—but my mother and my uncles would have known about it and at some point someone (probably Uncle Gene) introduced me to it and I would find myself longing to climb up into it and move around a narrowly circumscribed, almost womblike space. In later years my mother told me that, once, she and my grandmother got preoccupied with something and lost track of me, then suddenly realized they didn’t know where I was. A frantic search of the house didn’t turn me up and they were about to scour the neighborhood even though they could imagine no way I could have left the house, when someone thought to check the closet, where I turned out to be sleeping in the wedge.

He could walk on his hands the length and breadth of the house, moving erect but upside down from the living room to the kitchen and back, climbing the first three stairs to the landing and coming back down, at least once making it all the way upstairs. He trained me early in headstands, though I never was strong enough or balanced enough for handstands. He also made me practice dive-rolls, of which he was a master. The house, the yard were only local gymnasiums for him, and he would set up the hassock in the living room for me to dive over, flying straight across it, then tucking under, landing on my hands and shoulders and rolling out of it so I could come up onto my feet and run. He seemed unable to pass through a doorway without reaching up to grasp the molding and chin himself. In the yard he would jump from the garage roof, swing and drop from tree limbs, vault fences, and, as I grew older, encourage me and other neighborhood kids to do the same. It was like living with an acrobat.

My uncle was by that time in the hospital and perhaps it was then, rather than before, that my mother said, “If he hadn’t been thrown from the car, he’d have been killed.” The patrol car that was the first on the scene—sheriff? state police?—at first could find no body though they peered into the car and all around it, backtracking along its trajectory, the trail it left rolling and sliding along the grass. Somehow someone looked on the opposite side of the road, on the east, and found him, bloody and unconscious. Someone may have told us that being drunk and being thrown from the car saved him—though being drunk was what caused the single car accident that threw him from the vehicle—because he didn’t feel the impact—his body didn’t resist it—which would have made his injuries worse. Lucky he was drunk. Lucky he was unconscious. Lucky he was driving so fast he was thrown from the car onto the opposite side of the road from where the Merc’ landed. Even then all this struck me as spurious science and dubious good news.

I remember Cooperstown only as a town centered around that small pink one-story house on Lake Street. It was a town of statues. Around the corner was the statue of a World War I infantryman astride a large boulder, his rifle in his hands, his legs spread apart, as if ready for battle. We knew that statue because Grandpa Root's name was one of those inscribed on the bronze plaque below the soldier, names of those from Cooperstown who served in the United States Expeditionary Forces. In the park down by the lake was the statue of an Indian hunter and his dog, facing Lake Otsego, the Glimmerglass. This was a statue more in the spirit of the place for us, since everyone called it “Leatherstocking and His Dog” and somehow tied it to the Leatherstocking novels of James Fenimore Cooper, son of the founder of the town. The statue supposedly caught the Indian on the watch up the length of the lake, perhaps for the return of the Deerslayer. Each time we stood below the statue I tried to imagine for a moment the park empty of people, the lake devoid of powerboats, and the Glimmerglass mirroring the unbroken forest along its shores and blue sky above it, the surface smooth but about to be broken by the appearance of the Deerslayer pursued in his canoe by hostile warriors while his friend Chingachgook watched and waited.

But most of us have had our portraits taken for one sort of commemorative occasion or another: the school yearbook, graduation, wedding, employer’s promotional event. We usually have a portfolio to look through, a chance to choose the photo we hope best represents ourselves the way we want to be seen by whoever views the image. Often the photos have been retouched at the photographer’s studio, blemishes deleted, colors heightened or subdued, background cropped to increase or decrease contrast. If we hold up the final portrait, place it on our shoulder, and face ourselves in the bedroom or bathroom mirror, how often does the face of the living subject replicate exactly the face preserved in the photo? How well does the commemorated you record the living you? How well, I wonder, would the living face of the woman in the portrait that hung in our living room all the years I was growing up have resembled her photographic image?

They had been high school sweethearts, children of well-established Cooperstown families; her Lathrop lineage there was three generations long, and their fathers were sometimes business partners. Art had graduated from Cooperstown High School in 1913, Betsy in 1914. The article about their wedding in The Freeman’s Journal claimed that Delia was “one of Cooperstown’s most charming and accomplished young ladies,” known for playing piano and organ and singing in church. She and Art were regarded as being “among Cooperstown’s most popular young people.”

 

“SOLDIER WEDS,” the headline reads; “Delia Lathrop Ross Becomes Bride of Arthur Pier Root.” Title and subtitle seem to be wrestling with uncertainty about whom to emphasize in the news. “A simple wedding, hastened somewhat by conditions of war, was quietly solemnized at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Chas. W. G. Ross,” we’re told. “There were no attendants and only the immediate members of the two families were present for the ceremony. The bride’s gown was a becoming suit of blue serge with black hat and she wore a corsage of white roses.” Arthur stands erect in uniform; the marriage has been expedited because, while a senior at Hamilton College, he was called into the armed forces . . .

The Erie Canal runs through the center of town at a northeast to southwest angle. Its system of locks, which gave the city its name, allowed vessels to scale or descend the Niagara Escarpment there, bound west to Lake Erie or east to the Hudson River. We lived in a neighborhood to the south of the canal, where all the schools I went to were and where most of my relatives lived, except for my father’s father, who lived just north of the canal, on Niagara Street. Our churches, St. Patrick’s for my mother’s side of the family and her children, First Presbyterian for my father and his father, were also on the north side. On Wednesdays I would walk or bike from school on the south end of town and cross the Big Bridge to reach St. Pat’s for religious instruction from nuns who lived in the convent nearby. The primary business district paralleled the canal to the south from its eastern end, crossed it on the Big Bridge, and extended a little further on the north side. Some Sundays, my father would take my sister, my brother, and me downtown to get comic books and the Sunday paper at Kipp’s Cigar Store, maybe have a treat at the Crystal, a soda shop, and cross Main Street to stand on the bridge to watch the canal for boats being raised or lowered in the locks. In May 1961, when I took that photo from the Big Bridge, the locks looked serene in dawnlight.

This image of me arrived in an email from my son with this note: “Mom is at a class reunion and found this guy in one of her yearbooks.” She was celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of her college graduation. It’s a photograph of a photograph of me, one I have no memory of ever seeing. My fiftieth anniversary was the following year; I didn’t attend, in spite of the chance to track down the photo on site—I didn’t want to break my record of nonattendance.

 

Eventually I uploaded the photo onto my laptop screen, opposite a Roz Chast cartoon of an “Inside-of-Body-Experience,” a woman sitting up in bed thinking, “Once again, here I am.” It captures my morning mood too often. It also makes me wonder what kind of inside-of-body-experience the college student in the yearbook picture is undergoing.