In various snapshots, I can see myself and my brother at such tender ages that we don't translate into the people we are today. It's as if we're a rudimentary language that has gone hopelessly awry, replete with illogical endings and a third sex. I see these faces and look in vain for the people I know. They inhabited the world, they bore our names, but they are not us.
On the other hand, of course they are! While my brother's tingling skepticism has yet to raise his brows, his good-fellow smile is there for the asking. His hair is blond - a color it would not retain. His mouth slackens with kindliness, just as his eyes halfway melt as they confront the lense. He is a nice little fellow and it shows. Yet his life took a turn that changed his nature - or, rather, brought it into focus early on.
Whether it was from a zeal for cleanliness or a kind of malignant curiosity, my brother punctured his eardrum with a stick - which is what Q-tips were in our day. After a number of operations, he could stand up all right. And the horrific nose-bleeds that came out of nowhere were curtailed. But it left him a somewhat damaged person for whom the vagaries of life were a real thing. Childhood's innocence was thus cut short by a jab and, in its place, a certain wariness set in. Bryan watched me, in part because he was incredulous. My lack of a third dimension must have truly fascinated him. I was what I did. I had no subtext. I was a competitive animal. He became thoughtful overnight - though I think the capacity was there already. Mine was not. (Mine? I'm not sure I'm "thoughtful" to this day. Not as my brother is.)
I'm a barefoot, brown-chested showoff. I am smiling big for the camera. I have on a smart little suit, with a spot of bow-tie. (I loved dashing around in it!) I'm having a fit because I can't get up and do something. And, while I appear to be nice, I am cruelly indifferent to my brother's handicap and begin, not to understand him, but to shut him down. He could never play baseball well enough, so I wouldn't let him. He ran more slowly, so I left him in the dust. I was absent where he excelled. He was an enigma, but a disposable one.
I've since changed my tune, but, when I look at our photographs, I can't help think of this brotherly pecking-order.
Amidst our smiles and lunges are the clunky pieces of furniture everybody in our income bracket had at the time. Our couch sits in a back-room today, with its most recent covering. It looks calm and dignified, the perfect seat for an insurance man or spiritual counselor. It started out as something a guy wearing grey flannel might not only sit in, but wither into. The Fifties and early Sixties did not need to be in color. The black and white photographs with which our lives are chronicled suit it very well. My father's ties were guiltily restrained, as if riper color-notes might be reported to the FBI. My mother's "favorite" coat was a corduroy thing that so was defiantly dull, it wasn't even, at times, visible. The cut was all right, but, when it was hanging up, I couldn't see it. I know because, when she would ask me to go get it for her, I could rarely find it.
"Where is it, mom?"
"In the closet."
"But I looked!"
I remember when we junked our television, a big-tubed thing with an enormous speaker. I used to study the silver-veined fabric as I listened to it. Having no frame of reference for a speaker-cover, I thought it wonderfully complex. It was, in fact, in the same drab vein as everything else. It was of a drabness. There was nothing special about it at all.
It is a black-and-white television posing for black-and-white photographs. Perfect.
What does stand out is the pictures on our walls, which hang in various configurations - stacked, highlighted as individuals, or crowded out by ephemeral things - in small dens and livingrooms. They look like paintings and, in a sense, they were. Or, rather, they had been. My parents didn't know artistic people, so they lost out on the chance of owning an "original." (No gallery-going for them either. Not on their budget. And certainly not in Memphis, where I don't think there were any galleries outside of the college.) Most people in those days didn't own paintings of any kind. It was vaguely subversive, like having Das Kapital on a podium. Or some literary novels you'd read after college.
I wish I could have been with my mother when she went to a department store in Pittsburgh, Kansas City, or St. Louis and picked, from among other likely masterpieces, our Bruegel. Dark and wintry, it shows hunters in a snowy field. Beyond it is the mittel-European village that is hungry every day and cries, in guttural accents, for its dinner. The landscape is far-fetched, but perfectly real. It is swathed in a murky envelope, with a huge tarn in the distance. Behind it are The Mountains that hold everybody in and keep the bad people out. Their snow-capped densities say everything about a forbidding planet.
It was presented with an eye for totality - which is to say, frame and picture blended very well. Part of it even picked up the picture's predominant color-note, a sort of mottled green. Somebody at the frame warehouse had chosen a worm-eaten wood and had cut this wood, I would think, for this particular image. Or perhaps all the Brueghels, assuming there was more than one.
I hate myself for having lost this picture to a girlfriend who probably went and lost it. I really do; I hate myself.
But it served a purpose for which I - who had no inner life at the time - was not consciously bearing witness. It awakened me and my brother to the reality of image-making. That there could paintings like this somewhere suggested to my unformed intelligence (I can't say what it said to my brother, except I'm sure it spoke more clearly) that people made such things and other people, different people, liked them well enough to pass them down through the centuries.
"Where is this?" I once asked my mother, who was trying to read a book.
"This picture. Where is it?"
"Why, it's here. Is my eldest son blind now?"
"I know it's here. What is mean is. . ."
"Yes?" My mother's lips crinkled in amusement. She enjoyed prompting an embryonic thought process.
"Where is it, mom? The place in the picture?"
"Okay. You know where Europe is."
"Yes," I said, with the certainty of the befuddled.
"Europe is where we all came from."
"I know that," I told her. A beginner's arrogance. I'd never considered such a thing.
"The people on my side of the family are Irish. Your father's are French, but they act like Germans."
Though she knew my father wasn't around, she peeked around the corner in the event that he hadn't gone to work that day and was spying. As she knew, her observation wouldn't have gone over very well.
With that pronouncement, she went back to her reading. I wasn't satisfied.
"But. . .where?"
"In a painting, son. . .what you see isn't always what it seems to be. The artist has created something out of his imagination."
"So. . .it's not anywhere."
"It's somewhere, but that somewhere might just be in the artist's mind."
Came a minor ephiphany.
"Oh," I said.
If I'd been able to elaborate, I would have told my mother that I understood the difference between something real and something imagined because I'd explored that very thing more punily, but still. But I just said "Oh!" again. I think I disappointed my mother fairly often.
The second picture was chosen, I think, for its creature-comfortableness with the other. It had a shut-in sort of palette that, it seemed to me at the time, didn't have a lot to do with whether the sun was shining or not. Everything looked like it was inside - even the landscape. But this really was inside: an intimate inside, an inside with creamy texture and luminous shadow. It was - though I would never know the artist's name - a Vermeer and it showed a young woman of somewhat humble lineage churning butter. She's standing up and toiling over a well-used churn and, while it is work of a sort, it had a restful, almost noble, quality. It was important work and it could not be rushed. It is a private moment the viewer is privileged to see. And while the room is dark, it's dark in a very appealing sort of way, as if space is around you. If the lady had gone on a break, the room would have been interesting to look at. There was something in the paint or the light or the age of the thing that made churning butter infinitely fascinating. I wanted to go and be in that room and I would have substituted at the churn to do it. It wasn't like any other room. God, to be in it even for a minute! Lucky lady! She was there for all time.
I did the same damned thing with this picture, though the girlfriend probably has it still. I should screw up my courage and ask her about it.
Over the years, I think I was in every house on Kaye Road and many others on adjacent blocks. In none of them did I ever see a painting - or a facsimile of a painting - as good as these. In those days, as in this, people were interested in wall decoration as a way to balance a room or complement the curtains. Very little time or energy was spent on the perfect image for a given room. Just slap something up there and be done with it. Nor did anybody ever comment on the pictures my mother had, with the quiet determination of somebody who would not succumb to mediocrity, assembled and hung on our walls. They were there for whoever might care to acknowledge them.
Yet I looked at them all the time. And was considered smart for a time because I knew who Brueghel was.
"Who's your favorite painter, Brett?"
"Peter Brueghel," I said, adding his real first name.
Nobody else had a favorite painter. I was absolutely unique in that and was allowed - for a time - to be ineffably superior. My brother was never asked such a question - or, if he was, he didn't tell us about it. It was his modesty - a thing so esoteric that I couldn't get my mind around it. Be modest? What for? Because you have a lot to be modest about. Oh, right.
I/we also looked at two little pictures that were hanging in my mother's house when she died: tiny facsimiles of very good realist paintings of other workers in a different - probably the mid-19th century - time. Their precision is Germanic - exemplified by the hair of a potato peeler, who is surrounded by family possessions. I suspect she is a servant girl who's toiling for the haute bourgeoisie. There is no implicit criticism here, just, as in the Vermeer, a daily activity frozen for all time. Its palette is subdued, but I would not say, in this case, that a black and white version would be just as good. Its wooden table is worn in a way the shelf beyond the potato girl is not. Two different colors and spaces. The light is ambient. No sharp contrasts, just a kind of wholistic purity of tone. Its anonymity says something, not only about my mother's social views, but of her artistic judgment. She didn't give a damn who did the picture. It was good and she liked it. And at a time when she not only pinched pennies, but hid them against the next rainy day, she paid four dollars for each - though only one is so marked.
Couldn't my father have bought them? No. No pure and simple.
Both images are in their original glass and frames - which were also chosen with care and sensitivity. They're very small, but when I see them today, I'm transported to those intimate spaces where people did their work and took what satisfaction they could from it.
The other image is of a lawyer. He's got a quill pen in his mouth - which suggests he has used, or is about to use, it. His desk is covered with stacks of paper, wonderfully realized by the artist, though without ostentation. He wears a jacket whose overall color is reminiscent of the one my mother had - the one I could never find when it was pressed in among other garments. It's a picture of ease, comfort, and concentration, with darkly rich color and accoutrements of leather, brass, and varnished wood.
I wish I'd talked to my mother more about these pictures. Why had she chosen them? Were the images personal - or did she simply like them better than the other ones that were available at the store? What was she trying to evoke? And what dreams did they nurture, if any?
These questions will remain forever unanswered. But I will take possession of the two pictures that remain myself. Unless my brother wants them. This time I will not shut him down. I will, in fact, be glad that he wants them. It was clearly the same with my mother, who purchased them all because she wanted to look at something that would take her - and us - somewhere else. She wanted a contemplative space within which she could dream and soar. She didn't want to just plug up a space. She wanted to animate it with unforgettable things. Even on a budget that could barely speak its name. When Oscar Wilde said "He knows the cost of everything and the value of nothing", he wanted to scour the greedy while reminding the rest of us that life is essentially spiritual and, in order to feed it, you've got to be careful. And you've got to put joy above so many other things.