One of the prize artifacts of childhood in our family is a photograph of my mother, age 4, standing on the wheel of Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis as it sat on the sands of Old Orchard Beach in July of 1927.
Two months before, Lindbergh had made history by making the first non-stop solo flight across the Atlantic. Apparently, a thick coastal fog forced Lindy to land his storied airplane on the beach to be refueled. My grandfather Paul Gibson was the manager of the Socony-Vacuum oil terminal in South Portland and arranged to have a photograph taken of his daughter posed beneath the wing of the silver bird.
Little Betty Gibson is sporting a pageboy haircut and wearing ruffled white pettipants and baby doll blouse and black leather lace-up boots that make her look like a child of the 19th century. There is a look of shy incomprehension on her face that I still occasionally see today as she, a 90-year-old woman, sits on the edge of her bed in the nursing home. My mother’s innocence then and now brackets my own sense of childhood – a time and a place that flies away unless pinned down in pictures.
As the fair-haired firstborn of my generation, I was photographed a great deal as a child. Among my favorites is a deckle-edge black-and-white snapshot of me, circa 1953, with my Nana Beem, my namesake grandfather and my father: three Edgar Allen Beems standing in front of a vintage Ford in front of 112 Ludlow St. in Portland. I am wearing shorts and a double-breasted dress coat, looking very much the sissy except for the baseball bat in my hand. In another snapshot, my grandfather, who played semi-pro ball in Ohio and helped found Little League One in Portland, is crouched behind me like the catcher he was, instructing the uniformed me in the art of pitching.
My very favorite picture of my own childhood, however, is a 1956 picture of my brother Paul and me dressed as old ladies for Halloween, curtsying and mugging for the camera in front of our house in Groton, Mass. A couple of little 1950s drag queens. What was Mom thinking?
The photographs of my childhood are scattered all over in boxes and envelopes and folders against the day I finally get around to making sense of my life. It’s a wonder we managed to save any keepsakes at all, given how much we moved when I was growing up. For my own part, I have faithfully documented the lives of my three daughters and now my three (soon to be four) grandchildren in a dozen photo albums. One of these days, I’ll have to figure a way to scan them all and make copies for everyone.
The first family photos in the 1980-1981 album show Carolyn and me with baby Hannah the day we brought her home from the hospital. My lovely 24-year-old wife looks sleepy, but blissful. My 32-year-old self looks dazed and confused (and about 50 pounds lighter).
Through the procession of the years, hundreds of pages containing thousands of photographs chronicle the cycles of birthdays, holidays, school days, sporting events, summers at the lake and at the beach, proms and graduations, followed by weddings and babies. Now our baby Tess will be graduating from college in a week. The years flew by in a blur of the eternal present. That’s why I took pictures.
Most families preserve their shared pasts in photographs that come out at major birthdays, weddings, anniversaries, graduations and funerals. They tell not only other people but ourselves who we were way back when.
The most recent photo in the 2013 album is of Nora’s beautiful little girl Alda, 2 in August, wearing a bright pink sweater and green plastic pop beads as she carries handfuls of bird seed from the feeder to a “soup” she was making in a large white clam shell in our backyard last week. There is mischief in her eyes and a comprehension of who she is and what she is all about that seems beyond her years, beyond even my mother’s years.
I dimly recall that magical sense of self possession, but it is as difficult to hold onto as childhood itself.