fig. 1: a southward view from the northern property line, 3×3 print on 126 square-format film, 1973.
A line divides the setting. Faintly purple and faintly grey, a washed-out sky dominates the upper two-thirds, gauzed in the thinnest quilt of clouds. Below, a two-acre hash of tall, golden grass Xs and bends in the wind off New Brunswick’s breast. And where these two color fields collide, a line divides the setting.
This line is where our farm exists.
Reading the line from left to right, east to west: the dark steeple of a spruce, the rough pyramid of a maple, the weathered-grey gable-end of the house—two windows above, two windows below—the connected ell and barn, and set a little ways off, the remains of a collapsed outbuilding almost but not quite reaching the midpoint of the line. Past the outbuilding: an indistinct horizon ending in a copse of poplars quaking at the picture’s western edge.
On the photograph’s reverse, my mother’s faded script: this is the farm we’re buying.
The farm. My mother’s home for thirty-five years. More than half her life. Two divorces and three children and one cataclysmic stroke on a bright September morning. Innumerable animals and arguments and summer barbecue dinners shared under the front yard maple. Her adulthood spent on a Northern Maine farm atop a blustery hill. The last house on a dead-end road. A place for hope and hope deferred.
This is the farm we’re buying.
fig. 2 & 3: my sister and me, 3×5 print on 110 film, May 1983.
Winter-brown patches showing through new grass in the field behind the house. In figure 2, a nearly colorless eastern sky above a backdrop of poplars and spruce clustered across the unpaved road, a couple leafless red-twig dogwood blazing off the soft shoulder. [Not pictured: the green scent of spring-stunned grass, the tart whiff of nearby animal pasture, the lingering bite of winter on the breeze.] Nearly centered in the frame, my sister Tanya sits in the grass with her knees drawn up to her chest. Beat tennis shoes, navy shorts, white T-shirt, enormous glasses. Her left hand is raised in a visor across her forehead to shield her eyes from the sun. Her other arm forms a casual geometry: right elbow on right knee, right wrist through the crook of her left elbow, right hand relaxed in a droop. She’s skinny, maybe because she’s thirteen or maybe because we’re poor. Or both. Dark curls tumble down her lean shoulders. The look on her face—the shape of her mouth—is disbelief verging on disgust. She is looking directly at the camera.
Before her, on my hands and knees, I clamber through the grass. Blue overalls. Red and white striped T. Blonde hair parted on the left. Brow furrowed against the sun and bottom lip in a milk-fed pout. Weeks away from my first birthday.
The second picture is likely taken moments later, vantage shifted to the northwest: the photographer has circled my sister and me. Tanya is crouching now, one knee in the grass, and we are holding one another. I am clutching her, face buried against her right shoulder, and her arms cup my body in an obvious gesture of comfort, of consoling. Her face is mostly obscured by her hair, but unmistakable is the concern in her eyes, in the shape of her brow.
I have no doubt that my father took these pictures. The evident discomfort in my sister being observed. The narrative implied by the two photos side by side. My father is who took these pictures.
In the background of figure 3: a white and black cow approaches.
fig. 4: Jaison and my father in the driveway, 3×5 print on 110 film, March 1982.
One of the few photographs I have of my father. Half-turned toward the camera in a brown flannel shirt, dark blue work jeans. Sunglasses. Bushy beard. Wind-blown hair. The photograph is almost completely white with snow, drifting to swallow a snowmobile and a tractor parked at the driveway’s edge, the orchard of denuded apple trees, the leaning chicken house. Through all his hair, it is impossible to read his expression.
The same cannot be said for my brother. Dressed in a dark snowsuit, orange and blue mittens and a matching knit cap, Jaison is beaming, his mouth open wide with laughter. He’s smiling so hard his eyes are all but shut. He is standing near the fender of a snow-swept Dodge Pinto. He is waving at the camera. Whatever is happening this winter morning, it is clearly enough to render Jaison insane with joy.
This might very well be the strangest piece of evidence amid what scant documentation I have of my family: my brother expressing any measure of happiness in the presence of my father.
Seeing this picture, every time, I cannot help feeling sad. I never had a chance to know my brother when he was still a laughing Buddha. I wish I could have been alive when that blissed-out child, hysterical with delight, still inhabited my brother’s body and brain.
My father’s slight stoop.
His unkempt ruffle of hair.
The beard engulfing his face.
This so easily could be me as an adult, unmoored from time and standing with my six-year-old brother in the snow two arctic months before I was born.
fig. 5-7: my mother, 3×5 print on 110 film, August 1982.
In an obvious but effective pose, my mother sits in a throne-like wicker chair in our living room, the banister to the stairs visible over her left shoulder, a white ceramic lamp and, beyond that, the oval glass of our incongruously ornate front door unfocused beyond her right. Mum is wearing a sleeveless purple blouse with her long hair drawn in a loose ponytail. She is smiling. It’s a picture-taking smile, but a smile nevertheless. I have so few pictures of my mother smiling. She looks beautiful.
Over her right breast, a lactation stain darkens a circle on her blouse. Unfortunate, maybe, but not unsurprising. Pink and ravenous, I would have been three months old.
An evident theme might be emerging. Between figures 5 and 6, Mum’s expression is all that changes. Her eyes are wide. Her lips are parted. Her teeth are showing. Hers is a shock that blossoms into anger, as though the photo were taken mid-sentence: “What the fuck did you just say to me?”
Figure 7 is taken at much closer range. So close that it’s barely in focus. The word that comes to mind: encroachment. Mum’s head and face. The neckline of her blouse. A bare crescent of shoulder. Her hair has come undone. The poise and smile of figure 5 are gone. So too is the lactation stain, now outside the frame. Everything in her expression is an exhausted plea. This is the face I know. So badly, she wants to be left alone.
Again, I am certain my father took these pictures. They are exemplar of a trend I’ve witnessed over and over in the photos of my infanthood, in the four years between my birth and my parents’ divorce. A shot of everyone smiling, followed by a shot of everyone confused or afraid, followed by a shot of anger, of disgust, of tears.
It’s a trend I’ve seen repeated in photos of my father and his siblings, of his mother, California photographs taken by my grandfather. Everyone smiling. Everyone confused. Everyone hurt.
What was happening in the moments between the shutters’ clicks?
What was being said?
Why did my male progenitors believe—what made them think—that this is how a family should appear?
After the divorce, very few pictures of the family were taken. As if the camera was an accessory to a serial crime (the complicity of documentation). As if no one anymore needed evidence of who we were, where we lived, what sorts of things were done.
fig. 8-10: three sunsets, 1973, 1977, 1999.
Three photographs sharing the same composition. Same contour of westerns hills. Same sun exploding behind the horizon. Same angle. Same aim.
The first photograph (a 3×3-inch print on 126 square-format film) is summer or early-fall—the soft shape of the skyline betrays leaves still clinging lushly to the trees—the landscape almost entirely black as the sun sinks behind the collapsed outbuilding and somnolent distant hills, liquid yellow gradating upward into smoky bluish-grey. All but the roofline of the chicken house is lost in the black below. A faint suggestion of bushes. The barest indication of an apple tree. There’s a warmth to all this darkness.
The second picture—also 126 square format—is winter and only slightly less engulfed in black. You can make out the slope of lawn, the ragged thatch of the berry patch, the slump of the chicken house, the stretching fields across faraway hills. Instead of yellow, the sun and sky flare through shades of pink. The collapsed outbuilding is gone. What isn’t lost in shadow is drifted in pink-tinted snow.
The third photograph—a 4×6 print from a disposable 35mm point-and-shoot camera—again, is winter. Instead of pink, the world is glossed in the coldest blue, the sun a decreasing yellow cinder behind the hills. What isn’t lost in shadow is locked in a fist of blue ice.
All three pictures were taken from the exact same spot, at the end of the driveway, above the wooden platform covering the old well (a well that’d long run dry and whose cover was brittle with rot, a known danger we did nothing about, never replaced, rebuilt, shored up: a threat ever-present right outside our door). All three photos contain the same hills, the same trees, the same increasingly haggard chicken house. The same landmarks and monuments that defined our lives on the hill. Figures 8 and 9, I suspect, were taken by my mother. The first in the verdant months after she and her first husband—my siblings’ father—bought the farm. The second in the final months of their marriage, before the divorce and the introduction of my father into this lonesome tree-lined world. The third photograph, I captured, in my final winter before leaving home, years after my father and sister and brother had all gone their divergent and distant ways. Our individual departures each making this lonesome world more lonely. Yet it’d be nearly ten years before I discovered this synchronicity—ten years before sifting through this spare evidence of my mother’s life, a box of photographs discovered in the wake of her sudden hospital death—my mother and I hypnotized through decades by the same indelible western skyline, the same indelible flash of light lost behind the world’s curve, the stark reality of where we stood versus the abounding unknown beyond the edge of what little we could see.
Given the nature of sunsets and the mechanics of photography, my mother and I were each likely trying to capture something that was already gone.