I find it in the darkest corner of the basement, out of sight-out of mind until now, my latest cleaning frenzy. The scuffed cardboard box, thick with dust, has been forgotten in the five years since my move. Probably books or knick knacks, I think, as I peel away dried strips of old tape and pry open the box.
Sitting right on top is an old family photo album. Its thick brown pressed-paper cover is frayed around the edges; its once-shiny glaze dulled by age and the many fingers that have held it and looked through time and again. Heavy paper pages hold dozens of black-and-white, jagged-edge-framed snap shots affixed with black paper corners.
The very first page features the traditional newborn-on-bearskin-rug pose that was popular decades ago. One after another, the photos tell the story of a little girl. A few photos show mother and child, and a few show various family groupings. The last two pages of the album hold colour photos printed on glassy smooth-edged Kodak paper.
Smiling at the familiar images, I turn page after page of my life. Nostalgic for what the pictures seem to depict rather than the events they captured. When I come to the last page, I close the album, stand up and stretch. There’s still a lot more junk to go through. But I am drawn back to this intimate history book, so I sit down and begin to leaf through it again.
Then, on the fourth page, I stop.
In the photo, a cute blond-pig-tailed tyke is lying tummy down in a plastic kiddie pool. She’s playing with a rubber toy, splashing happily. Standing next to the pool and looking down at her is a boy, perhaps a year or two older. He’s wearing short overalls, nothing else, and from his stance, it’s obvious he knows her, but his bent head conceals his expression.
Is he looking at the girl? At the toy she’s splashing with? Or is he simply noticing something in the grass by his foot?
Does he wish he could be swimming too? Is he saying something to the little girl?
Perhaps he’s shy about having his photo taken and looked down nervously the moment before the shutter clicked.
The little girl is certainly not shy; she’s used to being photographed – mostly by her Mom, who sends the photos to her Dad in Canada. At least, that’s what her Mom tells her, though she’s never seen this Dad. She has her Deda and Majka, and her Mama; she doesn’t need anyone else.
Many of the stories my mother tells, and that my grandparents have shared, blend with my own childish recollections. Blurring distinctions so that I can’t remember which of the memories are my own. Yet, whenever I look at the photos taken during the first four years of my life, I can almost feel the calm contentedness of this child, who knows she is safe. Loved.
I remember our modest house in a small rural village, where everyone knew everyone else. Life was hard and each person had work to do. My Mom was a school teacher. My Deda was a mechanic, and my Majka grew vegetables and fruit in our garden, and raised chickens for eggs and Sunday lunch. I played on my own or with the neighbour kids. I liked playing with my pet cats, too – the scrawny freelance mouse-catchers that I would grab and cuddle whenever I could.
Thousands of miles away, across the ocean, my Dad, his parents and sisters, were setting up a new home. The summer I turned four found us there.
But, on that hot, sunny day long ago, none of that matters. Moments after the photo is taken, the little girl stands up in the pool. The boy’s eyes bulge and his mouth drops open as he stares. She giggles, steps over the puffy pink rubber edge of the pool and kisses him. Right on the lips!
Her first kiss.