The Photograph as Writing Prompt or What to do about Marcel Proust

Wilber Merton Deming, local photographer, and four Winsted businessmen circa 1893

… the title “In Search of Lost Time” gets to the heart of what the book’s about, because this very long novel by this very strange Frenchman is mostly a consideration of how time, as it were, slips through our fingers, how we are alive but most of the time not properly attuned to the world around us. In other words, we’re constantly wasting our time. — Alain de Botton, author of How Proust Can Change Your Life, interviewed on NPR (Time, Memory and Proust) December 2005.

 


It begins simply enough with two photographs—one of my grandfather, Nicholas Vreeland in army uniform, taken upon his arrival in France in 1918. He didn’t see any action, having arrived just in time for the armistice. Get off the boat, have your portrait taken, get on the boat and come back home. But this is not about him. It’s about two photographs and what to do with them. You see, we’re culling; we’re going through 43 Tupperware tubs of materials that have been neglected in a U-Haul storeroom for the past several years. We pay rent for that space, and now it comes to mind, how much more than money we pay for the objects of our neglect.

Alanna sorts clothing, utensils, small appliances that will go to the thrift stores, and stuff that will be given another life and put to use again. Stuff. That word, a vague catch-all. I’m tempted to apologize for it, but think it to be the most appropriate. Then there’s the other pile, other stuff that will be re-stored and reinstated as objects of neglect for another five to ten year sentence. Maybe less, it’s not going back to the U-Haul rental space; it may sit protected in a not-so-temporary-yet-not-so-permanent hiding place like behind a sofa. Out of sight may be out of mind, but five years is a stretch for exercising neglect in a living space.

The thought of a closet may have crossed your mind. Poor farmers built this house which, more than a century ago had but four rooms. A generation ago, an addition was tacked on. Now it’s a cottage with two closets. Both are stuffed.(That’s what you do with stuff, the noun. You can use stuff to satisfy stuff, the verb.)  There’s a spare bedroom that’s stuffed as well. It’s a store room except when we have an overnight visitor. Then it’s a guest room for one willing to sleep amid filing cabinets, chests of drawers, and other dubious furniture with overpopulated and overcrowded surfaces.

Alanna sorts through the tubs and hands me the two photographs with a gesture that says, “Do something with these.” I remove the portrait of my grandfather from its frame and scan it. The frame goes in the trash. Perhaps I should give the photograph to the Winsted Historical Society in the town where I grew up, and where Nick lived most of his life. The society might be interested but I have reservations. It seems to be more devoted to displays of Revolutionary War memorabilia. There is also the Connecticut Historical Society. Historical societies and public archives are great places to which decision-making dilemmas—such as what-to-do-with Old—Nick  can be passed. And I can hide the digital image on a hard drive, out of sight, out of mind. Until … I don’t want to go there.

It’s the second image that takes me down the rabbit-hole. In it, five men are seated around a table. I don’t know if they have been arranged with their heights taken into consideration. I don’t know if they have been posed. “Al, would you tilt your head a bit to the left? George, cigar in the right side of your mouth. Yes, that’s it.” Five men. The one on the left, Wilber Deming, sets himself apart, not by distance, but by appearance. He’s wearing a worker’s cap while the other four are sporting bowlers, or derbies as they were called in Winsted. Deming holds a long-stemmed pipe while the others have cigars clamped in their jaws.

A unique feature of this photograph is that the photographer is in the image. Wilber Merton Deming (1851-1916) was a well-know local photographer. Some of his images are in private collections, and some have been catalogued by the Connecticut Historical Society.  On this day, Deming positioned himself, and someone else pressed the cable release activating the shutter on his camera. I know this because of the penciled notes on its back. Howard Merton Deming, Wilber’s son, wrote in August 1943:

Picture probably taken before 1893, perhaps by Will Ackley, brother-in-law to Deming. Photo gallery was on the third floor of wooden block opposite residence of E.P. Jones. Picture found among effects of Edward R. Holmes, died 1943.

I’m taken as much by the notes as I am by the image, and my interest in the complementarity of photography and texts is rekindled. (My earlier blogged essays on this subject include, “Work that Matters and the Interdependence of Photography and Texts”, “Photographs and Texts — Functional Codependency”, Photo Stories — a Follow Up to Functional Codependency” about The Old World and Other Stories [House of Anansi Press] in which Cary Fagan takes photographs as writing prompts for short stories, “Fine Art, Photography and Texts: Bieke Depoorter.” Those essays are no longer available on line.) I’m particularly taken by Howard’s description of Charlie Chase. He notes:

Son of D.B. Chase, Plumber. Brother to Nettie Chase, home florist Prospect St. Chase shop was where Colt’s Block is now. After D.B. died, Charlie was with Wills Norton as Chase & Norton. Charlie ran Steamer Carrie for some time in its later years.

Steamer Carrie? That takes me deeper down the rabbit hole. The fruit of time spent in subsequent research informs me that the “Carrie” was a passenger boat on Highland Lake, a pleasure resort in the days when the town was prosperous and had a future, long before the summers I spent swimming and fishing there..

Take a look at Charlie. I see an attitude there, perhaps a braggadocio that wants to conceal the risks he takes as an entrepreneur. See how he’s the only one with his arms folded over his chest somewhat defensively. I see a guarded man with a lot of energy—a gamesman, a scrapper.

Howard tacks two words to end his notes about Charlie—“Shot himself.” Oh? There are branches deeper down the rabbit hole. Howard may have had it wrong. Continue reading

No Reason to Go Back

Colebrook River RoadWinsted is where I first became conscious of the notion of happiness. I was eight years old and walking up Walnut Street on my way to art lessons at the Beardsley & Memorial Library. A sunny, robin-and-forsythia spring afternoon, and I was passing the house where Stormy and Billy Phillips lived, long before Stormy walked out and was never seen again.

The moment spanned but a few seconds. I passed the house then crested the hill and eventually climbed the stairs of the library to the third floor where I was disappointed by my own poster paint creations.

Winsted is where, a year later, my father walked with me up Walnut Street and down to Main. We stopped by the Winsted Evening Citizen building and watched people pick up cans of Carnation Milk that floated out of the A&P on the raging flood waters that washed away the town. Carnation milk “from contented cows.”

[Photo: The old Colebrook River Road through “the village that disappeared” — “Sarah Harvey used to live over there.”]

I loved Winsted as an ignorant child and came to hate it as a know-it-all adolescent. I loved the Winsted that was noisy with the machinery of the hosiery company manufacturing woolen underwear and the Gilbert Clock shop that pumped out unreliable timepieces. I loved a Winsted with busy sidewalks and older men who had the time to stop and ask me who were my favourites, the Yankees or the Dodgers. And as a teenager I came to see Winsted as an inadequate town — a perfect place to grow up feeling inadequate, a perfect place to lay the blame. The Winsted I loved disappeared in the back-to-back hurricanes Connie and Diane, and the one I hated was resurrected from the stench and the debris as a two mile stretch of awninged stores and shops was replaced by four lanes of fast pavement. Winsted as a community nestled in the northwest corner of Connecticut somewhere of unimportant distance between the beauty of the Berkshires and the commerce of Hartford, disappeared in the blur of traffic passing through it. I think that being nine years old helped determine that event as a watershed moment, no pun intended. I think that my life wouldn’t have been so affected had I been six or twelve or twenty. Had I been of a different age, so I tell myself, I would have grown up with fewer hang-ups and dysfunctions. I’d be more socially adept. There’s the bitterness. The feeling of betrayal. I lost my coming-of-age innocence to a natural disaster and blame the Flood of ’55.

As an adolescent I heard rumors that Gene Pitney was from Winsted. Or maybe I heard that he had a girlfriend there, or maybe I made it up. Whatever. I believed it for the longest time. Gene Pitney grew up in Rockville, Connecticut, not that it matters, nor that anyone should care, because I am convinced that his 1961 hit Town Without Pity was about Winsted. To some that may be a lie, but I so wanted my town to have a claim to fame, a claim to something historic, something that would establish Winsted on the map of remembrance, like Springhill has the mine disaster, ‘cause to a kid, you’re a nobody if you come from no-ville. It would be a couple of years before Winsted native Ralph Nader made it on the scene, but as an activist bashing the automotive industry with his Unsafe At Any Speed, he wasn’t exactly a celebrity kids looked up to.

Since my mother’s stroke last November, I’ve made several trips to her apartment in Connecticut—trips that took me back to Winsted, if only to drive through it on my way to shop in Torrington, because there is little shopping that can be done in Winsted now. Where once there were dress shops, a delicatessen luncheonette, a couple of haberdashers and a cigar store, there is now a sequence of dilapidated and dusty store fronts housing wannabe antiques. There’s ABC Pizza on the east end of Main Street and Kent Pizza on the west end and in between are the landmarks of the Laurel Lanes bowling alley, Town Hall, Post Office and the movie theatre. Changes in signage and new coats of paint try to disguise the fact that Winsted has been dying for decades. The occasional person seen on the street may well be a ghost

Last month mom and I drove down Main Street for the last time. We were getting ready to move her to Florida and we went to buy packing materials in Torrington. Stopped at the light at Elm Street and Main, the center of town, she said, “The town has disappeared.” When she said that I thought of her own condition and how she has associated memory with identity. She knows that she is forgetful and she believes that her memory loss diminishes her. “With only half a memory, I’m only half a person,” she said, the idea of her own disappearance scaring her.

As I write this, I experience a moment of déjà vu. The fact is I’ve written about memory and disappearance before. I wrote about the disappearance of a house in Riverton.

During my junior and senior year of High School I worked afternoons at the Riverton General Store. Riverton is a small village on the banks of the Farmington River best known for the Hitchcock Chair Company founded in 1825. Hitchcock produced high quality replicas of American colonial furniture, and its factory showroom attracted tourists from noteworthy distances. Wives would browse the village, and the factory employees could see from their workbench windows, the husbands fly-fishing in the river.

John Kenney revived the company in 1946. He was a conservationist. Some years later John bought a defunct stone church in Riverton and converted it into a museum. He came to me one day while I was working in the store and asked if I would prepare rubbings of the gravestones in the church cemetery. Unfortunately the stones were weathered beyond the salvation of essential data.

I remember a day when a woman from New York State came into the store and asked if someone would take a table she had just purchased, tie it to the back of her car so that she could drag it up and down the street a bit so as to give it a more weathered and rustic appearance. She was frustrated that the salespeople at the factory, who were friendly enough, refused to do this ‘treatment’ for her. They had this thing about pride of workmanship, she said. “What’s that go to do with it?” she added, tossing up her hands. “I’m the customer. I know what I want.”

If it weren’t for my job at the general store I’d have few memories of Riverton. I got off the school bus there and worked afternoons, and on Saturdays I worked all day, walking the forty minutes each way from our house. By then my family had moved from Winsted to Colebrook, a ten minute drive down Route 8.

The walk took me down across the short narrow bridge over the Colebrook River and along the river road. I would crest a small hill by the Congregational Church and come down into Riverton center. There wasn’t much there but an intersection with the store, a gas pump, a post office, the chair factory, a couple of colonial homes, and across another bridge, the Riverton Inn.

Coming down past the Congregational Church I passed a house on my left, a house higher up on a hill. Relatively new, it had been built within the last 15 years. The steep slope of lawn would have been a challenge to mow in summer, but a joy for children sledding in winter. The house commanded the best view of the village, and since it was atop a steep hill, I could not see it in its entirety. My vision obscured, there was something of a mystery about the house.

Each time I walked by, I noticed a car parked at the top of the driveway. My vision of it was obscured as well as it was partially covered with a tarp. A sports car I believe. It was never moved. During the biannual visits I made to my parents when they were living in Colebrook, I often walked to Riverton and back, and for years I noticed the house and the neglected car.

When I visited in 2009, the car was gone. So was the house. Nothing remained but the blue cap on the well. “What happened to the house?” I asked. The house had belonged to John Eastman, and when his wife died, I was told, she willed that the house be razed. And so it was. The driveway pavement is still there, leading up the hill to nothing.

Why did she want the house destroyed? What could have been her motive? The questions haunted me back then, and I wrote that “Now I realize ever more profoundly that my mother is the only reason bringing me back to Northwestern Connecticut. One of these years, should I not predecease her, I will no longer drive down to her house in the woods.” Winsted, Colebrook, and Riverton will be relegated to memory, and with time, landmarks will be effaced, put out of recall’s reach. Riverton cannot call the house back to life anymore than I am able to remember every customer for whom I carried grocery bags.

What I recall of the landscape transform over time. Structures disappear, like the Hitchcock Chair Company that closed in April 2006[1]. John Kenney may have been a conservationist but he couldn’t save the factory from global economics. The showroom and the parking lots are empty.  The landscape and my memory transforms. There is both an outer and inner landscape, and I am unsettled when they out of sync.

And the house on the hill that is no more has much to do with this. Why does it bother me so? Would knowing the reason why the woman willed the house to be taken out of the topography bring me comfort? What would change? Did she destroy the house because she could not bear the idea of another experiencing the joy she had in living in it? Or did she suspect that the experience of anyone else would be second-rate when compared to her own? Did she do this because she knew the house could only exist as she had known it, and to hand it over to others would have been a desecration, a profanity? Or perhaps her life in it had been an unbearable hell and this was her revenge. When her body was interred, or her ashes scattered, so too her wood-framed and gyprocked temple retired. Respect, honour? Her commemoration is a de-memoration, a dismemberment.

I think about the house and feel a connection with the woman I do not know. She has joined partners with me, or with that part of me that has begun to forget about the people and places of my childhood. Most of the customers who came into the general store for their weekly shopping have moved away or are buried in local cemeteries. Through no act of volition, they have disappeared from my mind. The chair factory on the other hand … well I don’t blame Mr. Kenney.

But this woman whose house is no more has unwittingly and unknowingly conspired to remove one more piece from my landscape. No act of innocence, there is something sinister about what she has done. A suicide of landscape, it is an unnatural taking. She may have lived within the house, but did she not consider those of us who lived without, and that our histories are tied to a landscape of which the house was a feature? Wouldn’t she have done better to have bequeathed the house to time and the elements? I fear I will blame her decision for other losses and lapses of memory. When my mother departs this life, I will think of the house on the hill and know there is a connection. And yet, how ironic, in removing her house from the landscape of Riverton, she has fixed it more strongly in my memory.

“With only half a memory, I’m only half a person,” mom says while we were waiting for the light to change. The notion scares her and it scares me as well. It doesn’t sit right. I have been taught that, “…the soul of man is exalted above, and is independent of all infirmities of body or mind.”[2] I focus on the “mind” part of that teaching. The soul has been likened to a light, and physical and mental infirmities as afflictions that intervene and prevent the soul from manifesting the full strength of its luminance. But I can’t grasp how the analogy works with the matter of memory. And I struggle with the concept that memory is not a physical quality but a spiritual attribute akin to virtues such as honesty and trustworthiness that we acquire in this world and carry into the next. While the powers of hearing, sight, touch and taste are corporeal, memory, like imagination and comprehension is spiritual. And if that be so, it’s difficult for me to accept that memory is everlasting, especially when I can’t remember why I’m standing in front of the refrigerator with the door open. How can I reconcile the loss of memory with the integrity of my identity?

In all probability, I will never go back to Winsted. I now have little reason to return. I moved out of the family house about the time US warplanes started to bomb Hanoi, and since then going back to Winsted meant going back to visit my father and mother. My father died in 2001 and last week I moved my mother into an assisted-living facility in Florida. My living connections to the town are no more. What’s left is a bank account.

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