Thanksgiving, now

A year ago I sat in my quiet house, admired the clean and uncluttered surfaces of my kitchen and pouted a little, even so, because I wasn’t in charge of Thanksgiving, wasn’t roasting the bird, wasn’t making the dressing or the elaborate and time-consuming cranberry salad.

For the first time since college I was spending Thanksgiving off, traveling to Louisville to be a guest of my niece and her fella, spending a couple of days with them, my brother and sister-in-law, my nephew, Dillion, and the dog.

Alex was solicitous when she showed me to my room that Wednesday.  Did I have enough covers?  Was the lamp bright enough to read by?  And, look.  Dan ran out and got a nightlight for the hall, the steps being steep and the light switch hard to find.

After morning coffee there wasn’t much for me to do.  She settled me into the sofa and turned on Netflix to a show she thought I might  enjoy.  It was a little like being a toddler. 

The day went without a hitch.  The food was great, Dan’s family delightful, and really, except for the dog dragging the turkey carcass into the living room after dessert, all  was perfect.

I had to admit, it was nice being a guest, getting fussed over a little, and contributing next to nothing but doing the dishes.  And even that was less about being helpful than it was about avoiding  the traditional Thanksgiving hike Dan’s family seemed so enamored of.

I was invited to return to Louisville this year but I will stay put, back in the business of roasting the bird and doing the dressing.  I’ll celebrate with my sister and her family, a smaller gathering than in years past, but one I am pleased about, one I am looking forward to.

It has been a year of change and adjustment, a year of fits and starts, with connections and separations that come to all families as children grow up, parents and grandparents leave you, and work and life rub blisters here, create opportunities there.  Everything in flux, up in the air, eventually falling back to earth in configurations you don’t always recognize or understand.

But this is nothing new. Life moves.  And we move with it.   It expands and contracts and veers off to the left, and here we go, eyes wide open or squeezed shut, but at least one hand still wrapped around the reins.  The stirrups may be flapping wildly, our hats have come off, but we don’t let go.

I’ve sent Alex the family dressing and egg nog recipes as she has asked.  But I called her, too, because I need to explain things, make sure I tell her what Granny Opal told me when she guided my hands all those Thanksgivings ago.  There is the recipe and there is the process. This is what I tell myself Alex needs to know.

How  fine to chop the onions, how many eggs to loaves of stale bread.  Time and temperature. The production that is making egg nog, whisking whites, long enough but not too long, how to judge when to stop. She can look all of this up, of course, can find better recipes on-line, perhaps, find more sophisticated ways of doing things.  But that is to miss the point.

What I mean is this. I want to instruct her as I was instructed, standing in my grandmother’s kitchen.   I want Alex to be there, too. I want her to have more than just a spattered index card.  I want her dressing in Louisville to join in concentric circles my dressing in Owensboro, and Granny Opal’s from 1948.  I want her Thanksgiving table to join with ours, and the tables of our grandmothers, and their mothers’ tables, ones laid in distant dining rooms we would not recognize, but belonging to us, all the same.

Black and White

I grew up in a photographic home. I spent a great deal of my childhood in one of two states—either antsy while standing stock still and waiting for the shutter to click, or hopping from one foot to the other while banging on the bathroom door, waiting for my dad to let me in because he was locked in there printing pictures.  He would let me in, eventually, but he was always a little huffy about it, and he was impatient, standing  there in the rosy red light and bathed in the fumes of developer and fixer.

When I got older he wanted to show me how to develop my own photos but the chemicals smelled bad and the production of mixing them, dragging the enlarger and trays and squeegees up from the basement was overwhelming.

It seemed to be a male pursuit, all the beakers and glass stirrers and thermometers, the black changing bag he used to spool up his film before he developed the negatives.  All of it a production and exhausting and the drama of monitoring the faintest of stray light,  the yelling to keep the door closed  frayed my nerves, eroded my confidence and sent me to an early bed.

Sometimes I would stay with him and watch the images emerge, but I remember mostly the sensory aspects of it. The familiar bathroom made alien in the red glow of the special light bulb he used, the snap of the enlarger drawer as he extracted paper from the light-tight box, a softer snap of the negative carrier, the even softer metallic scrape of the enlarger head sliding up and down. 

The watery slosh as he rocked the large white trays gently back and forth, an imperceptible twinkling later, the chemical smell.  Our eyes fixed on the trays and the paper floating just below the surface of the chemicals.  We willed an image to appear.  It would, eventually, but  it took a long time, and it felt like a magic trick that wouldn’t work this time. 

But, then, faces rose up, or buildings, slow and faint and distorted in the watery darkness, wanting to be liberated it seemed.  My father kept pushing them back into the drink, by the corners and gently, but still.  It seemed excessive.

Photos, transported from one tray to another to another, and then plucked dripping by the corner to be hung up to dry on a string by metal clips.  And as mysterious as the process is, I was—and am—still struck by the fact that these high value objects—photographs—begin their lives as wet paper.

In college, though, I changed my mind about the process, and learned how to take better photos and how to develop film and print my own pictures.  It was still messy but I used the school’s darkroom and that helped.

Now, I am feeling the itch to try it again. I have inherited a couple of old but good film cameras and as much as I love my digital cameras I would like to see the difference in prints made from real negatives, not pixel. Amid the junk in the basement sit two enlargers, shrouded and kind of creepy, and I am  just not sure I have the strength, or desire, to haul one upstairs and use it.

My research question has become this.  Does black and white photography look so good because of the camera and lens, the film, the processing of the film, and/or the way in which photos are developed from the film—the chemical process and the paper.

And if it is the camera, negative and paper, could I bypass the chemical processing of the darkroom for a quality scanner and printer and good paper?  Would the results be almost as good, good, or maybe even better?  Is printing images the old way an esoteric pursuit like bookbinding by hand, or in service of the finished product?  I don’t know.

This will be my holiday research project.  I want to play around with the old film cameras.  I admire classic film black and white photography, the creamy whites and rich blackness of it.

Would like to try my hand—again—at developing my negatives.  I can do that at the kitchen sink. But I can also tell you this. That lazy kid hopping from one foot to another is still hanging around, and if there is an easier way, a  better way, or as good a way, she is going to embrace it. 

Joan Didion and Her Blue Nights

I’ve spent a great deal of time with Joan Didion lately.  As I was finishing her book, “Blue Nights,” my pal, Janice, told me about the new documentary about Didion on Netflix, The Center Will Not Hold,” so I watched that, too.

Readers who have come late to Joan Didion’s work are most apt to know her memoir, “The Year of Magical Thinking,” the beautiful and award-winning account of the year her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne, died suddenly of a heart attack, at the dinner table, an hour or so after returning from a New York hospital where their only child, Quintana Roo, lay in a New York ICU, on the verge of death.

Grim stuff, that, but Didion tells it, unflinchingly, and in her distinctive voice that readers have admired and praised since the 1960’s when she wrote for Vogue, Esquire, The Saturday Evening Post, Life. Her writing is sophisticated but approachable, and when I sit in her presence, I often let the book drop in my lap for a moment while I admire that sentence, this paragraph. 

I don’t know how I came to pick up my first Joan Didion book—I suppose I was browsing the non-fiction section in some bookstore or another, and I came across her book of essays on the Sixties, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem.”

The title, alone, was enough to recommend it.  It is a compilation of articles she wrote to explain, or attempt to explain, the Sixties—the Summer of Love, Haight-Ashbury, the “flotsam of jetsam” of humanity that flees to the golden coast, searching for something, that elusive better thing, only to find a vast ocean, and no where else to run.  In her opening essay, “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream,” she captures the promise and desperation of the mythical place that was California in the mid-1960’s.  The center of the counter-culture, John Wayne, quickie divorces and beauty school, sunsets over trailer parks on the flat, scrub brush edge of town.

“Blue Nights”  is the memoir she wrote after the death of her daughter, Quintana.  She struggled with serious illness before her father died and for two years after.  It has been called an uneven book, but an important book, even so. 

Didion wrote “The Year of Magical Thinking” in three months, wanting to get her thoughts down while they were still fresh, raw, and she tells us in interviews that for her, it is through writing that she processes her life and comes to terms, in a way, with Dunne’s death.  It is a deeply honest book and moving, perhaps more so because there is not a hint of self-pity in it.  We see her, sometimes, blinking in the searing light of her new grief, disoriented perhaps, but never pitiful, as she searches for the word, the thought, the memory to help explain things.

“Blue Nights” is a different kind of book.  One reviewer said it was not a memoir on grief, like C.S. Lewis’s “A Grief Observed,” or indeed her own  “The Year of Magical Thinking.”  He suggests it is a memoir of regret, as Didion grapples with the loss of this child,  the questioning of her effectiveness as a mother, and her own aging. 

They adopt Quintana in a flurry, and Didion tells us at the celebratory drinks party the next day it is her sister-in-law who suggests they shop for a bassinet, that it had not yet occurred to Didion they needed one. 

That this child is wanted and adored we do not doubt. But Didion lets us in on her horrible secret-perhaps all mothers share it—her fear that she might not be up to the challenge.

It is a moving and sometimes painful tale of families, hope, love, desperation and grief.

The actor, Griffin Dunne, her nephew, produced the Netflix documentary.  It adds context and texture to her writing and her life.  She reads from her work in voice-overs, this self-assured voice we hear in contrast to the frail woman we see on screen. 

“Slouching Towards Bethlehem” is the book I have bought and given away at least a dozen times to friends and fellow writers.  I think Joan Didion is the finest essayist of our time, or certainly one of them.  Spend an evening or a week in the pages of one of her books, a perfect place to hide for a few hours in late autumn when it feels as if our own centers “will not hold.