Fiona C. Hankenson

Reminiscence: Lyric Essays on Two Photos

i. Unsteady Gait

Am I pulling her ahead or is she holding me back? My left leg is in motion, pitching toward the camera. Or is it a steadying attempt before I tumble to the ground, a fall (one of many) to be cushioned by seed pods and straw? We will amble off the wide path of paver stones on a walk together, then halt as the sun dips beyond the distant hedge, casting us in shadow.

The bush behind us seems lit from within: a blur; an explosion that fills the backdrop and conjures a fiery blast as if delivered from the Father of Fire, Prometheus himself. Is that what pushes me forward?

Our grip on each other is so tight! Her fingers press deep into the pudgy flesh of a hand so small it lacks definition. These outfits: such a clash of patterns and colors: paisleys and fishnets, florals, and stripes. So daringly uncoordinated. Red shoes match red cheeks. My big sister’s pursed lips create a perfect equals sign with the bow at her neck. The slight hint of anxiety in her eyes mirrors mine. Our brows arch in confusion as we move toward our mother, then startle at “no” and “stay there,” as Dad squats to our level and snaps the shutter. The camera winks coyly, capturing us before we can smile on demand.

The film will be pulled in the dark from the tight plastic roll, developed, and airmailed to Scotland. Our grandmothers yearn for a glimpse of their children’s children in America. If you squint just so, the blurred backdrop evokes the heath, the lowlands, and the gray skies of their homeland. We are frightened fawns that huddle close; highly alert while frozen in place.

My sister is their Princess; alas, am I the jester, their fool? These subtle pretensions permeate our childhood. All Hail the Monarchy! Even though they cross an ocean to democracy, we come to realize there is a timid Queen and mad King in our midst. Erratic and stubborn, demanding and domineering. Expecting our best behavior, to be seen and not heard, we give him our unending loyalty and love. We rotate like child planets around him, from shadow to shimmer to shame.

Those tiny white shoes are a timestamp: my legs are out of their full plaster casts and yet to be braced, all part of my infant history. Maybe this explains my unsteady gait? Severe inward hip rotation. Anteversion. She may never walk normally, a warning to my parents. Soon after this photo, metal rods will stabilize my legs, scaffolding my outer thighs and calves to a welded junction at the shoe line. White leather is swapped out for utilitarian brown to force my feet in parallel and point me straight ahead. The tops of the rods are bound by a thick cream-colored belt that fastens by a clasp, cold against my belly each morning. Many years pass until I’m eventually freed.

You never love the same again after your firstborn, Dad declared late one night on my short visit back home. Like it was obvious. Like I was kidding myself to imagine otherwise. He won’t remember telling me this, of course; the agony of his hangover erasing another boorish exchange. I am transported back in time to the troubled contest he created. Once again, I am the fool.

But if you squint just so, see there? She stands tall like Athena, Zeus’ firstborn and first choice. Her legs are so straight and strong; an unyielding pedestal. And if this casts me as Artemis, so be it. I won’t abide by their medical prophecies; I’ll grow taller, run track, and then marathons.

On closer look, it is me pulling ahead. I cannot be contained in this frame. I’m prepared to sprint. Like a deer.

ii. Achilles’ Heel

Sunbeams streak like bolts of lightning, aimed right at the pictured pair. It’s so hot, my father and little brother both wear shorts, and Dad never wore shorts. The grass looks baked to beige like the pallor of our expansive Plymouth, which transports us on our annual odyssey from the north to the south for a family camping trip. These journeys were always marred by the humidity and thunderstorms of the North Carolina shoreline, not to mention the erratic temperament of our father.

The jaunty flip of Dad’s sunhat is most unintentional in its asymmetry. Shoved into the wagon last minute, I can see it now as it likely was then, crushed against the window, the one in the way-way-back. A last-minute afterthought stuffed in among the sleeping bags and coolers and tent poles, plus that orange lawn chair, all pressed in to bursting. We three children waited for what felt like an eternity, belted in across the wide vinyl backseat, our thighs sticking in the summer heat before we’d even left the driveway. Everyone loaded in but our mother. She’d be too long inside, anxiously checking the stove, watering the plants, dimming the lights. Dad sat at the wheel, having a smoke, and clucked under his breath, muttering.

No shadow is cast forward by my brother, our little Achilles, as he slips behind our father’s chair and lifts his heels off the ground. This child: so beloved by our mother. So sweet and innocent, our little plaything. For all her protections, the boy is consumed by the intrigue of that large box of matches, with each wood stick dipped in a cherry-red nib. A magical spark erupts each time the tips are pulled, quick as can be, against the roughened black stripe. His curiosity is his weak spot. The child wants to know more, see more, be more.

I can just make out that small smirk that lifts the right side of our father’s mouth ever so slightly, upturned like that silly hat. His job is done; he drove the family here and now deserves his rest. We obey his commands. The wife and girls will put up the tents, and he’ll wait until it’s done. He’s halfway through his book, squinting at the pages; the plastic sheeting from the library peeling off in the heat. Sweat drops from his brow gather in size and momentum, falling and moistening the pages. I’d like to think his smirk reflects some amusement at the plot he reads. I’d like to think it is not that he is lying in wait, bracing his arrow of anger for its next target.

The packet of Kents makes Dad’s shirt pocket gape; with his free right hand, he’ll absently place the cellophane against his mouth, tipping his head slightly to let one cigarette slip forth, pulling it from the foil with his lips. As he reads, he’ll grab the camping matches, jiggle the box open just a sliver, then strike to light. A sleight of hand and he deeply inhales; the tobacco flares bright and dims to a glow.

Just behind him, his son’s tiny shoulders are reddening to a burn as that tiny hand inches along the hood. How do those tender feet endure the blazing sand and stones? Fingers steal ever more closely, the matches just a few inches away. He is brave at this young age.

In a parallel scene, the fingertips of parent and child would unite as each reached for the box.

In a parallel life, this gesture would yield a shared smile of surprise.

In a parallel world, he’d pull his son onto his lap, hug him tight and tickle his little bare belly. 

But no—just watch. He’ll turn quick as can be and smack that little hand hard. A shot that will reverberate for decades, well beyond our childhood. Then he’ll settle back without a word. The smirk replaced by a scowl.

That’ll teach him.