The Thinking Cap

Toward El Morro, © 2017 Susan Barsy

My father’s death a month ago overshadowed the calendar: overshadowed politics, Christmas, the work on my desk.  Though long-expected, his dying was startling and awe-inspiring, as awful and absorbing as seeing a ship sink or a comet flicker out.  Will the final disappearance of someone so constant and strong bring on other mysterious changes, too?

Writing about it feels strange: words, like shovels, make his demise and burial more definite, undeniable.  Besides, when I write, I put on my ‘thinking cap,’ which amounts to a return to habit, the resumption of a normal routine.  I doubt my father would have it any other way.  The deaths of his parents were followed by silence, their funerals unadorned with eulogies, the family sitting together at home after a noisy funeral luncheon, each mourner quietly nursing a whiskey.  The next day it was back to work, with nary a tear or outward trace of loss.

This much tribute, though, must be paid: without my father I would not have the intellect I have today.  Not only was he the model of a thoughtful and curious being, but he encouraged these attributes in his children and respected our gifts.  He was happy to have daughters with musical or mathematical abilities, who had political opinions, or were good at problem-solving.  Not surprisingly in high school I was a math nerd, a National Merit Scholar along with 5 boys and my friend Wendy.  In college, when my literary interests flourished, I found gifts like Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature and Edmund Wilson’s collected letters under the Christmas tree–reads that defined my earliest intellectual goals.

In a way that my formal education did not, my father stood for an active engagement with society.  He was someone who understood every physical feature of a landscape: its plants, institutions, machinery, and buildings.  Besides being a businessman and industrialist, he was a worshipper and a forward-looking inquirer.  He looked out.  He was interested in our futures, in the direction of society.  He traveled widely for work, bringing back gifts and stories; otherwise he remained in motion, always busy with projects that would bring new beauty or marvels home.  His view of us and of other people was profoundly egalitarian and mercifully free of social-science thinking.  Despite his practical, scientific bent, my father’s worldview left plenty of room for the ideal and the miraculous.

I’m fortunate to have had such a wonderful father.  He left me an heiress of sorts.  Some such is my song as I put my thinking cap on.

Image: ‘Toward El Morro,’
© 2017 Susan Barsy

Girl with a Kodak on a Winter’s Day

A girl holding a Kodak camera and standing in a snowy Washington DC smiles for an unknown photographer.

George Eastman (1854-1932) had been on a tear.  He had dreamed up a series of innovations that, when realized, transformed photography and its role in society, so much so that we may credit him with inventing this photograph and the two-Kodak family who arranged themselves around a slushy curb to take it in Washington DC.  Thanks to Eastman, private life gained a new means of preserving its own history, an advance that marked the birth of modernity, in a visual sense at least.

Before the ‘Kodak revolution,’ a family’s ability to record its own existence, its own specific reality, was limited indeed.  It helped if one were literate or could draw or paint, for art was the only direct means of capturing the look of one’s child’s face or the cut and color of the clothes one’s beloved wore.  Photographers were professionals who wrangled obdurate equipment and understood the complex alchemy of developing the imagery.  Either such a one, or a professional artist, could capture the look of a freak snowstorm as it was melting.  Without photography of an accessible kind, one’s only hope of chronicling the weather or family life was to write a lot of letters or keep a careful diary.

Eastman’s genius was mechanical and conceptual, too.  He invented a new camera and new film processes, while also envisioning a whole new social role for photography, which he realized by assuming all the burden of developing the photographs that Kodak customers made.  “You press the button—we do the rest.”  With that notion, Eastman transformed the relationship between the would-be photographer and the medium.  He gave the world the snapshot, empowering amateurs to practice photography.

Eastman’s Kodak camera hit the streets in 1888.  It was lightweight, small, and easy to work.  Instead of sensitive or messy plates, his affordable camera was the first to employ roll film (another of his inventions).  Once the pictures were taken, customers sent the film back to the company for developing.  The very earliest Kodak prints were round, like the one above.

The new technology brought an immediacy to photography that, before, it seldom achieved.  It eliminated the middleman, allowing a relationship-driven photography.   The girl in this picture epitomizes the change, as she stands stock still, grinning, hugging a new Kodak camera close to her body.  The wind lifts her coat hem.  Her style and the swing of her mother’s skirt are just as they were in that earlier century.  In the street, her father, Uriah Hunt Painter, presses a button, capturing his willowy wife and daughter as they half-stop and smile, a two-Kodak family on a winter’s day.

Image from this source.

Graces I grew up with

1.
God is great, God is good
And we thank him for his food.
By his hand must all be fed.
Give us, Lord, our daily bread.

2.
Bless us, O Lord, and these thy gifts,
Which we are about to receive of thy bounty,
Through Christ our Lord, Amen.

3.
Be present at our table, Lord;
Be here and everywhere adored;
These morsels bless, and grant that we
May feast in paradise with thee.  Amen.

4.
Bless, O Father, these gifts to our use
And us to thy service,
And keep us ever mindful of the needs of others,
Through Christ our Lord, Amen.

How these graces and not others came to be used in our household is a complete mystery.  Yet these are among the most durable prayers I know today.

Thank Goodness for Their Goodness

1948 photograph of Susan Barsy's ancestors at a feast table  (Credit: Our Polity)

Thanksgiving is certainly my favorite holiday.  Until lately so peaceful, uneventful, and familial, it demands nothing more than gathering together in a proper spirit to eat an unusually large meal.

Thanksgiving is American, but, alone among American holidays, has nothing to do with the military.  Thanksgiving has to do with peaceable survival.  Whether you are a member of the DAR or the descendant of slaves or recent immigrants, Thanksgiving is about the generations.  It’s about the struggle of each family to gain a foothold, earn a livelihood, and avoid adversity.  Each of us who celebrates is celebrating not just a nation but a family and that family’s particular and miraculous story.

We all know the Pilgrims encountered a hostile place.  Then as now, life was unkind, and the essential task was to avoid illness, starvation, destitution, and death.  In the Pilgrims’ case, survival entailed building alliances, banding together, welcoming newcomers, and becoming more savvy about living in an environment that was harsh and incomplete.  The Pilgrims’ adaptability, no less than their faith and courage, continue to furnish a pattern of virtue for all Americans today.

Of particular importance were their concerted efforts to prevail as a civil community.  The individualism we so prize today, and that we think of as being so essential to America, was not an option for the early colonists.  Practically and spiritually, individualism was a heretical abberation, one likely to bring chaos and death in its train.

It’s hard to imagine all that the Pilgrims endured.  The material comforts and security that are staples of modern American life are baffles, cutting off our imaginative access to the past, with its zeitgeist of solidarity and far-seeing sacrifice.

My father took this picture in the 1940s.  It shows his grandmother and her sons gathered around the table about to enjoy a holiday meal.  One of her grandsons reaches for the dressing.  The many women who prepared this feast are not in the picture because the table wasn’t big enough, and they hung out and ate together at a second table nearer the kitchen anyway.  Reproductions of the Last Supper and of the Virgin Mary (and elsewhere pictures of the Angelus and of Jesus wearing his crown of thorns) adorn the walls.

My great-grandmother’s face is full of benignity.  Her children have all flourished despite being left fatherless in 1918, when my great-grandfather died in a coal-mining accident; most of their seven children were still in their teens.  The children all worked and somehow became educated, the older ones becoming coal-miners, then mine superintendents, then jointly owning a coal mine: strategies pursued so that some of the younger children could stay in school longer, becoming teachers and engineers.  There were still sorrows and disappointments—the son to her left had multiple sclerosis and would die in the 50s (his wife is by his side to assist him)—, but their strength and sacrifice laid down the foundation that enabled me and my siblings, and my cousins, to thrive.

Today, most of the people in this picture are buried in the graveyard of an Orthodox church that stands on a hill above the house.  They helped build the church on land that had once been the family’s potato field.  Even when I was a child, the custom was to walk up to the church for the long holiday services, then back down to the house for the holiday meals (and for the long hours of visiting, card-playing, and yes drinking afterward that were a fable of naughtiness to a girl like me).

Thank goodness for their goodness, I say at Thanksgiving.