Photos from The Book of Knowledge and Wonder

with Captions Taken from the Text

In 1952, when I was three, my parents bought a set of The Book of Knowledge, ten hefty volumes bound in maroon leather each filled with questions from “The Department of Wonder.” Like sentinels posted at the gates of wisdom, the books stood proudly on a shelf between the glossy forelocks of equestrian bookends, each volume embossed with a golden torch. It was, my mother explained in one of the hundreds of letters she wrote to my grandmother, a purchase as much for her as for her boy. “I have really been enjoying it. I’ve been studying the subjects of music and art so far,” she explained. “That is how I’ve been spending some of my evening while Max is away.” Reading The Book of Knowledge helped fend off the loneliness and depression that, sweeping over her during these years, eventually destroyed her.

In one Brownie photograph from the wicker basket, my mother stands beside a tricycle with the shingled side of the house as the background. The front of the trike had a propeller with a circle of pistons behind it and the tailpiece at the end had numbers stamped in it to make it look authentic. The cockpit swooped down so that the rider could sit down completely and pedal. The toy is longer than she is tall, and it is clearly made of metal with dimples where bolts attach the wheels to the body. The wheels are inflatable rubber tires with shiny metal hubcaps. My mother poses proudly wearing Mary Janes, stockings, a pleated dress, a v-neck sweater, a beaded necklace, and a knit cap. She is dressed for cold weather and, since she was born in June, this is probably not a birthday gift but a Christmas present. And there is a shadow, perhaps the shadow of a tree, rising like a thin stream of smoke from behind her shoulder and spreading across the shingles of the wall, the adumbration, like the contrail of a plane in trouble, folding ominously and turning on her... The girl who is my mother leans casually with her open hand on the wing of the toy while a ribbon of black billows across the shingles behind her smiling face.

 

She looks directly at me.

As a girl, [my mother] participated in a dancing and gymnastic program that required her to twist herself into impossible positions and remain still. One of her suits for these contests was a one-piece combination of a leather vest and puffy, short, acrobatic pants worn over a white blouse. The picture was taken in my grandparents’ back yard—I recognize the characteristic round stones arranged around the trees from my own childhood vacations in Kansas—and in this garb she looks like the elfin Peter Pan, not the Mary Martin version, but perhaps the Eve Le Gallienne Pan in tights and vest from a popular version of the story which played at that time at the Civic Repertory Theater in New York. 

In another picture she is again in the backyard, this time performing a pose on a towel in front of dark cottonwood trees. She wears a shiny, sequined outfit with a puffy elastic bottom that exposes her knobby knees and long thighs, and lies head down on the towel with her face turned toward us. Her arms extend outstretched on the ground behind her, and she has lifted her legs high in the air so that one is upright above her body and the other bent at the knee, the toe of her shoe resting improbably close to her head. She looks like a pretzel turned on its end.

 

The expression on her face is an attempt at a managed serenity, and I look at it under the magnifying glass. Her mouth is a straight line, a stoic half smile, and her cheeks and forehead look relaxed as if she has learned to attain some level of repose even while maintaining this contorted position, but her eyes are closed and there is a tightening around them that suggests pain, and the eyebrows raised high and arched are also clues that the impossible hurts.

My grandmother eventually remarried her old high school boyfriend and lived the happiest years of her life, I think, with him in a small apartment in Beloit, Kansas, until he died of emphysema. She found a way to survive and move on and be there for my brother and me; that in my mind is heroic. She was the keeper of my mother’s story.

My mother spent a good deal of time guessing at her heart. On the envelope of one of the letters from 1947, Dad, who was fond of creating likenesses, made a line drawing of her. He used stationery from work, with “Dr. M. J.  Harvey, Veterinarian” printed in the return address, so it was probably done during a lull. In it, she looks young and elegant, her hair pulled back from her face exposing a pearl earring. The mouth appears soft and relaxed, but the jaw line is firm and the eyes are odd, attentive and apprehensive at once. I hold the envelope under a light. Both alert and detached in the drawing, the face wears an expression that I find in many later photographs, but this appears to be the first time, and it comes from dad’s hand like a relic placed in my care. It reveals a woman in conflict with herself.

 

I set the envelope on the ledge beside my computer. When did that look enter their marriage?

I hold up another photograph of my mother and me taken in December 1952, the year my parents bought The Book of Knowledge and a month after my brother was born. Sitting together in the living room of our house in Nanuet, she and I are both dressed up. I’m not sure what the occasion might be, but she often took me shopping with her. Her dress also has a modern design made of small boxy squares in the fabric and the collar is cut away exposing a rectangle of skin at her neck. She does not wear a necklace, which this dress clearly calls for, but has bright, clip-on earrings, and sits upright holding me in her arms with her dark hair brushed back from her face. There are other boxes, too. The pole of a floor lamp glows behind her shoulder, and the sections of the shade and framed photographs beside it on the wall are all rectangles, completing the picture. And, of course, the picture is a rectangle, poorly cropped. If my father took it, he aimed too high, since I am only visible from the mouth up, my face and blond hair in an elaborate wave nearly white from the popping flash. My mother looks off and away, unaware that I am slipping out of the frame, and only my eyes, looking directly into the camera, hold me on the page, it seems, like two dark pins.

I returned to the atrium of the museum to take a last look at the Aluminum Honeycomb mobile this time from above the two-story opening at the East Gallery entrance. I saw a sweep of dark wings, some with boomerang shapes and others more like the cocked back silhouettes of stealth bombers, arc momentarily, metallic swifts in flight, and follow each other down and away, wingtips tilting in currents of air, most of them jet black, though the last in the u-shape of wings has a gun-metal blue cast. Wild, menacing, skittish—those are the words that came to mind. Looking at the sculpture, I thought of darts and bats and blown debris. I thought of bullets fanned out on a car seat.

 

At the opposite end of the structure hung six large petals painted bright red. Suspended from five stems, the rounded shapes drooped below the pitched wings, the last one floating above the pointing fingers of children passing below. These carmine ovals appeared to drift out of reach, the smallest petal dangling at the greatest distance, with some of the red shapes cupped and others flat creating the illusion of casual disarray that we find in falling leaves. I thought of kites and bows and bright red buttons. I thought of medium velocity blood spatter.

 One evening after dinner I told [my daughter, Alice] that I thought she looked very much like my mother. I asked her to come downstairs to my study to look at a photo—the photo of my mother with Ron and me on the sofa. Alice took the frame in her long and slender fingers to get a better look, and I watched her examining the picture, her body lean and athletic from swimming and yoga, studying the image with her dark eyes, cocking one eyebrow.

 

Alice has the same dark hair and skin tone as my mother. Like her, her eyebrows are clearly defined and lift high, naturally, over the brow ridge. The two of them share a high forehead, wide-set eyes, and darkened eye-sockets. Like my mother, Alice has a thin nose, bobbed chin, and, though they are both feminine, my mother and Alice hold themselves in a lanky, slightly Tomboyish way. What separates them, of course, is Alice’s disposition which is sunny and confident and outgoing, but in looks, they are dead ringers.

 

“I think you’re right,” she said, looking at me and smiling, before looking back at the picture again.

My grandmother never talked to me about what happened when my mother was institutionalized for depression during this time, but she did talk to my wife,  Barbara, who wrote letters to her on a regular basis until my grandmother died in 1986, and was probably my grandmother’s dearest confidante at the end of her life. 

My favorite photograph from my childhood was taken when the three of us—my brother, my mother, and me—were on the sofa in Nanuet watching TV.... I have no idea what we are watching—it may or may not be Peter Pan—but the photo has the feel of those special nights. My mother looks completely relaxed and at ease in a way that is rare in her pictures. She leans back in the sofa with her left arm around Ron holding his hand in her fingers. Her legs, bent at the knees, are pulled up on cushions beside her, and I am nestled in the hollow they make, my elbow leaning on her hip while her right arm encloses me from behind and her hand cups my other elbow. She wears her jeans rolled up, exposing her calf, and has on white socks and scuffed saddle Oxfords.

 

She is thirty and at the height of her beauty. Her thick hair is pulled back from her face revealing high cheekbones, a long, thin nose, lips in a faint smile painted petal red, and dark, sultry eyes. The face is rounded and smooth, with no tension this time around the eyes. She wears a dark blouse with bright white buttons and sleeves rolled up to her elbows and looks healthy and athletic. What moves me about the scene is how relaxed and comfortable we all are, our bodies tumbling together in a way that seems natural and easy. Even the pillow at her feet—a large, brown, shapeless thing with piping running along its seams—adds to the rumpled informality of the image. These are the comforts of the familiar.

 

My mother died five years after the photograph was taken, but this is the photo, and she will forever remain for me the age she is in this picture. Looking at it, I register weight and heaviness, the three of us nestling into the hollows our bodies create, the weight of my head on my arm, of my elbow on her hip, of Ron’s body on her breast, of her arm on my shoulder—all of that causing the sofa to sag a bit. We are grounded. We are family. “Our warmth is the result of the burning that goes on ceaselessly within our bodies,” The Book of Knowledge explains, and the sharing of that warmth is everywhere in this photograph.

A photo from my friend Bridget Pool. Perfect!

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© 2015 by Steven Harvey

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