It’s a photograph no one else but me could have taken.
My mother didn’t take it, that’s for sure. She was great in front of the camera, her rightful place, and pretended — feminine wiles, how quaint — not to understand how to depress the shutter button on a point-and-shoot. My ex-husband was a distracted photographer with an artsy eye that didn’t translate to family photos. Twenty-five years later, no, Philip, I don’t remember whose earlobe that is.
But Philip didn’t take it.
I’ll describe the image. My daughter, Sophia, is three. Her hair is summer blonde and flows. She is wearing a yellow dress that is now packed in a bin marked “Girls,” in the basement of my building. My father, Tom, is 67. He is tanned and grey and rugged, with a big dad head, square and block-sturdy, the kind of dad head you don’t see much anymore, who knows why, something to do with the internet? Craniums diminish to accommodate next level evolution? I don’t know. Anyway, my father with his big dad head reminds me — in the best way, it’s high praise — of Carl the Rottweiler in Good Dog, Carl, a book I presented like prayer at bedtime to my girls when they were little.
My daughter and my father are lying next to each other in the green grass of the tiny summer rental house we had in Montauk, when the vacation town of my own childhood summers was too remote and blue-collar for what my mother called “the Hamptons crowd,” with the dismissive, reverse-snob tone she took for people with money. I do that too, but that’s another story.
There I am, the photographer, standing between my daughter and my dad and pointing the camera down at them from above. My father — Sophia called him Poppy — is using a yellow nerf football to rest his head. She is tucked into the crook of his arm. He is about to give her, his first grandchild, a kiss on the forehead. He juts his jaw and lower lip in a way that is so utterly my father’s mode of kiss delivery, so known to me that when I look at the photograph, the skin of my forehead tingles. My daughter blurs and it’s me instead, tucked close, hair flowing. I can smell his laundered t-shirt. Poppy — Daddy — is gone, and yet everytime I look at the photograph I’m struck: I had such a good dad!
As if to defy every damn thing wrong with the world today, and men, and me.In the version of time and place we think of as our lifetime, my daughter and my father spent six years together.
In the photo Sophia is almost close enough for Poppy’s kiss, almost, and she offers her forehead, a plane of perfection that still calls out to be kissed, I promise. She was and is a moon-faced child and her aspect was and is luminous. You can see for yourself, she’s sitting right there.
All their eyes are closed. It is the moment before his old rough touches her new soft and she knows it’s coming. Her bow lips curve in a smile that I can only describe, at the risk of revealing my covert Catholicism, as beatific. She looks like a cherub, dropped from the stars. His kiss is coming from on high, a place she has been. So they glow in anticipation. And I caught it.
I’m still entranced by the photo, 28 years later. It brings me, always brings me, to the point of this story.
Three years before, I, only child, was about to deliver Sophia, my first. My second-generation parents, old-fashioned, were nearly beside themselves with what, at the time, I found annoying and intrusive, but now recognize and desperately miss and want: their sticky joy spilling onto me.
Labor was long and hard. Delivery stalled. Things went wrong. Sophia was injured on the way from inside to outside, through me. She sustained trauma to her spine that left her with a childhood hectic with doctors and treatments, and reduced function in her left arm.
I have flash memories of the ordeal. In one, I’m in a wheelchair waiting for my mother to arrive so we can go to the NICU to see the baby. Here comes Marie in her fancy mall-walking jogging suit, marching down the long hospital corridor, still working the wiggle, I swear to god, even though she was 65 by then. I say, confused, “Where have you been? Where’s Daddy?”
My father began feeling unwell around the time I went into labor. I was in labor for 26 hours, and over the course of that long hard day, he got progressively dizzier and more disoriented. My mother was unable to reach me and in grave distress because my father was in grave distress. My father had a massive stroke — affecting his left side, of course — at the same hour as Sophia was on the journey that left her left arm injured. Of course.
In the version of time and place we think of as our lifetime, my daughter and my father spent six years together. Which seems short. But the photograph shows an affinity that reaches to infinity. Maybe on the day of her birth, he shared her trauma to lessen it? Maybe on that day, she shared his? All I know is the photograph brings me as close as I will ever get to believing in God.
There we are. I am taking a picture of my father and my daughter on a summer day in a small house near the ocean. My splendid mother, Marie, now gone too, is there. Philip is there and so is our lost love. My second daughter, Grace, is there … but not yet born. Only I know about her, she is the secret inside me as I take the picture.
You don’t have to know any of this to see it all for yourself.
I have the photograph with me. It’s right here.
By the way, Grace, born the following spring, is a lefty. Of course.