Friday, January 31, 2014

Learning about a Family

In October 2004 a dealer from Burlington, Vermont, placed a vintage photograph album for auction on Ebay with this description of the collection:

100 photographs in black and white showing a priest from his boyhood, through seminary and on to the work of the Catholic Church. The people are not identified, nor are the places. But there are two clues as to where this priest was from and where he may have served. On one page are two photo postcards (the only ones in the album). One is the interior of a church with this written at the bottom “Int de L’Eglise Napierville” and the other “Le Richelieu River” — both of these locales are in Quebec, Canada. The other is an envelope with pictures of the priest that is labeled “Lyndonville.” So it could be that this priest may have lived and/or served in both Quebec and Vermont. Perhaps someone remembers him?

Before I bid on the photo album, I tried to discover something about the seller. I wanted to know that she was reputable and that the album for sale was legitimately for sale. The description on Ebay made it seem an incredible find – something that no one would have parted with lightly or easily. I was reassured to find online a heartfelt tribute to the integrity of the seller; her name was on the business card attached to the wrapping in which she secured the album before sliding it into a mailing container to me.

Affecting my interactions with the album after the purchase was the commitment I had to removing none of the photographs from it. I had learned that there are sellers who remove individual photographs from a vintage album and offer them piece-meal for auction. On the other hand, there are sellers – and collectors – who insist on maintaining the integrity of the found object; the perspective here is that the photographs have a pleasure and a meaning when they are inspected individually and a still further message when they are seen in the context of the original collection.

As far as I could tell, the album that I had purchased was the creation of the original collector – either the priest himself or, I presumed, some member of his family. To scan certain photos without removing them from the album or damaging the pages to which they were attached, I untied the binding at one point (a kind of binding that was created to allow the addition or removal of album pages) and handled some of the first pages separately. I took care to return the pages in the order in which they had first appeared – not a strictly chronological one anywhere in the album, by the way.

In my time as the caretaker of the album, I followed clues in the names attached to certain items in the album. I began to entertain some possibilities about the identity and history of the priest at the center of this collection of pictures. For example, the village name of “Swanton” written in the margin of one picture of a religious procession exiting a church led me to an online picture of the same church on the website of the Catholic parish in Swanton, Vermont. On the margin of another photo someone had written “Romeo,” and the website of the Swanton Historical Society mentioned a Father Romeo Trahan as a speaker at an upcoming function. Typed on an envelope containing four or five small photos of a priest was the name “Père Trahan.” I was getting close, I thought.

I tried to figure out the best way to contact someone who might know the people in this album. Unfortunately, those ways always seemed a little too time-consuming to warrant interrupting the flow of work or the projects of a busy home life.

Meanwhile, the photos of the album began to have on me the same effect as the other vintage photos of nuns and priests and seminarians that I had been collecting at the time. My first goal with these old photographs had not been to sleuth around until I could identify the people and verify the circumstances of the event or the visit recorded in the picture. I kept being intrigued by these individuals who had lived in two worlds – the world of their birth family with all those powerful relationships of parents and siblings and cousins and the very distinctive world of their religious commitment. As a former student for the priesthood, I remember the opposing pull of those two worlds. I came in time to recognize in the pull of these photographs an invitation for me to explore and to respond to my own history and the history of my church.

Acting as the caretaker of the album with its photographs of this priest’s family was a role that I was ready to give up in 2006 when someone left this comment on Flickr next to one of the photographs I had posted there:

These photos are of my family members!! I recognize my grandfather, his father, and several aunts and uncles. How may I purchase these?

In a very short time this commenter convinced me that there was a real invitation for him and his family to renew their care of this album. Our exchange of emails gave me a reassuring sense of this man in his early forties:

My children and I are learning more about our family. Since both my parents are dead, I have spent many hours building the family history for my children. My father, Philip, has two brothers still living so I would very much like to show them these pictures too and ask them to help me identify further the people I do not recognize at first glance.

Within a few weeks I was placing the album in his hands. I wished him joy and pleasure in the care of these pictures of his family.

Four years later, I discovered this week, he himself would be dead of leukemia. I like to think the album is still there for his two daughters to grow in their sense of family.

When I was preparing the vintage album in 2006 to return it to the Trahan family, one photo had fallen out. Unattached to any of the pages of the album, it seemed a farewell gift from the priest, his sister and their father, who are pictured in the old photo. I have kept this photo for myself and have reproduced it at the head of this posting.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Perfect Spot, Rare Chance


My first venture as a homeowner twenty-five years ago took me into the ground level of what had been a private men’s club a century ago. The upstairs units had been developed as luxury condominiums. Period detail stopped, however, at the last step of the staircase leading to two basement units with open layouts and compact windows in deep wells high in the walls.

Access to the lawns surrounding the white two-storey Victorian building was easiest from those garden-level spaces. It took me no time to begin to carry a folding chair out onto the lawn on a Saturday morning, settle with a book and poise a tumbler of water in the thick grass alongside the chair. Nothing in the condo docs prohibited my use of the common area in this way, but the owners of the six other units never followed suit. Occasionally one of them would halt in her approach to the parking area and greet me: “You have found the perfect spot!”


From my office at work I can look out on landscaping by Frederick Law Olmsted. In saying that, I have given the reason most people would be interested in hearing about that edge of the property. From my office I nonetheless see and know how few people actually venture down the old walk. Our facilities staff keeps the area mowed and raked and trimmed and occasionally re-seeded. No one could fault us for not keeping the legacy up, but after a while enthusiastic appreciation fades amid the to and fro of everyday life.

One weekend last summer I suggested to a friend that we have a picnic in a quiet corner of the Olmsted-landscaped grounds. No one I know has taken advantage of the beautiful spot in just that way. We got to wend our way with the picnic hamper between century-old trees. Then we seated ourselves on a low ledge of masonry forming part of a trefoil design that gives definition to the sloping lawn. I remember looking up occasionally from bites into the sprouts and hummus wrap that I had made at home. What I got to survey about me that afternoon seemed a rare and lucky chance.


The hike was a cold one. There was no sign of the owners of the other car in the parking area of the Fenton-Ruby Park and Wildlife Preserve in Willington CT. As a friend named the hidden wonders along Taylor Pond Trail two weekends back, greens and browns and grays would suddenly separate and become distinct. He pointed and explained and bent down and touched.

And then something even I could not miss. It stood covered with moss, a great stony entrance into Hobbit-like fantasy. No sound around. Just cold and air and a world that keeps insisting on being seen.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Richard R.I.P.

Thanks to Richard, I was easing my first 35mm camera out of its box. It was a recent purchase that Richard had approved as superior of the religious community to which we both belonged in 1977. The new apparatus, fascinating as it was, felt like a cold weight in my hands. I entrusted it to Richard for my opening lesson.

A scientist and a physics teacher, Richard handled my new camera with the same care he showed delicate lab equipment. A precision instrument would produce reliable results if it was handled with respect. He turned the lens cautiously and focused on different objects in his office. Then he delivered the camera back into my hands and said, “Play with it.”

Richard was fifteen years my senior, beginning his forties when I was a twenty-five-year-old novice teacher. In so many ways during the two years we lived together in community, Richard communicated the awareness that I produced reliable results when I was handled with respect. I would produce remarkable results, however, when I took delight in something.

What was I ready to take delight in?

I was a cautious young man, thoughtful and dutiful and conscientious, who two years earlier had fallen in love with a man in another city. Richard became one of the individuals to whom I could confide what had happened. Convinced that the wisdom I most needed was available within, Richard invited me to consider the two of us participating in a journaling workshop held in the area.

In time I was writing about interior landscapes and photographing exterior ones.

Charged with a stage in my formation to religious life, Richard was confident that the best roads for me were ones along which I could discover things for myself. His wisdom there is something for which I am grateful to this day.

Richard discovered things for himself as well; he eventually became a therapist and married the woman he loved. In an email from her last week I learned that on Christmas Eve Richard had received a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. Opening my laptop at home this past Saturday, I got to watch his funeral Mass broadcast live from the Georgia parish where Richard and Maureen had worshiped together.

The following day I was sitting in a friend’s kitchen. I wanted to give him an idea of Richard so I had brought along the journal from that workshop that Richard and I had made almost forty years ago. As I read aloud to my friend in his kitchen, I realized that no one since Richard had heard me read those words. I realized as well that the writer’s voice I had assumed at twenty-five when I knew someone would hear it who respected me was the voice I have kept using in my best writing.

Who would not take delight writing and reading for such a person?

Thank you, Richard.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Aunt Alice's Oyster Dressing

A coffee table book entitled Christmas in New Orleans is able to take me back to the city of my childhood. I made the purchase in 2009, and each year the book does what I had hoped it would. Turning the pages, I enjoy photographs of the December shop windows on Canal Street and the lights outlining the front porches of homes on St Charles Avenue.

If my parents were still alive, they would enjoy the book just as much. They would see holiday images from the 1920s and 1930s. They would recognize the names of streetcars and bakeries. Reproductions of advertisements that New Orleans department stores ran in the morning and evening newspapers would remind them how much gifts used to cost.

I like to recall the look of Christmas in the 1950s and 1960s. My brother in New Orleans made sure I received some of the now yellowed Christmas cards that my grandparents used to send my mother and father over the years. Family photo albums show the aluminum tree that Aunt Thelma displayed in front of floor-to-ceiling drapes in her living room. In another photo I am sitting with my Aunt Alice on the sofa an hour before Christmas dinner; her oyster dressing, made with three meats, was a yearly favorite.

Today I tried to use Google Maps to get a peek at the neighborhood where my brother and his partner had lived when I was in my twenties and thirties. What two men did to their home to reflect a more urban Christmas had fascinated me. I was taking lessons in how much of family Christmas I might want to maintain (my brother had secured the recipe for the oyster dressing) and how free I could be to cultivate something distinctively my own.

What Google Maps showed me was a neighborhood with one old New Orleans house after another, each freshly painted, each tiny yard neatly landscaped. Back in the 1970s my urban pioneer brother and companion had had to create a spot of racy Christmas cheer alongside neighbors who could not all afford that look. What showed up today on Google Maps, though, was post-Katrina New Orleans.

It was not a New Orleans I would have immediately recognized from the 1970s and 1980s. What my brother and his partner were doing each Christmas that I visited during those years, however, was not anything that Katrina could destroy. What I was doing each of those Christmases was just as lasting, just as important. We all of us had taken the New Orleans of our younger years and braved a future for which there was no blueprint.

Each Christmas like that is breathtaking; each deep pot of oyster dressing, a treat.

Sunday, January 5, 2014


If you get to be in Rome to see a new year in, you sense how history beckons. Columns, arcades, piazze, bridges arching over the Tiber – history dares you to expect overmuch of the year you are poised to welcome. Likewise, history dares you to make too much of the year through which you have just lived. If you have brought a broken heart to Rome, you can walk and mull. The thing you cannot know is how disappointment and sorrow will soften, how a year later they no longer tell your story.

I began 2013 in Rome.

I began 2014 in Rhinebeck, New York, raising a glass in the company of three people who had not known me a year earlier.

On the drive to the Hudson Valley, I had to cross the Housatonic River in western Connecticut. Stopping by the covered bridge in the town of West Cornwall, I got to walk with someone and listen to the river under the wooden planks. How had I gotten here?

A couple of hours before our midnight toasts, a friend we were visiting had laid out cards and spoken of my life. How had that life gotten to sound like a tale of hope and support and connection?