Slides

Yellow

“It lets us travel the way a child travels…round and around, and back home again, to a place where we know we are loved.”

—Don Draper, pitching the Kodak Carousel on Mad Men.

I remember playing with the yellow plastic boxes, and my father saying, “Don’t put your paws all over the slides.” I used to hold the squares up to the bedroom window to see tiny pictures of monkeys and babies. They weren’t that exciting, but in those days telly didn’t start until 3 o’clock.

Zambia was mine. My younger sisters were born in Limerick, but I was born in the town of Mansa, Luapula Province, Zambia, Africa, The World, The Universe. I had no memories of the place, and no real curiosity about it, but it was exotic and scary in a lions-and-tigers kind of way, and at eight you’ll use whatever might make you special. I liked to tell people I was born in Africa, in that hair-twirling way of small girls who want your attention.

“And I was on an aeroplane, and on the way home from Africa I got sick out the window,” I remember announcing in class one day. One of the boys said that the windows on aeroplanes didn’t open, so it wasn’t true. I would be 16 before I got on a plane again, and none of the other kids had been on one at all, but his challenge put a stop to my boasting. It still stings. (Not long ago my mother told me that yes, I’d had some bad water on a stopover in Ethiopia, and vomited the whole way back—but not out the window.)

My mother was 20 and my father 24, and they were a few days married when they went from Ireland to Zambia to start their teaching careers. It wasn’t a completely unusual choice. Ireland has a strong bond with Africa through a shared colonial history and decades of Catholic mission and relief work. In the late 60s and 70s, the newly-independent African nations were offering contracts for foreign engineers, doctors, and teachers, just at the time that the first Irish generation to get free secondary schooling were coming out of college with their first-in-the-family degrees. The bolder ones were glad to sign up for a three-year adventure.

My parents weren’t the only young couple on that long journey heading out on one of those contracts. They watched the other passengers to see who stayed with them past Rome, past Addis Ababa, past Nairobi, and on to Lusaka. A girl with a shiny new wedding ring turned to my mother on the last leg, weeping, and asked her “Do you miss your mammy too?” They are still friends with Esther today.

Esther’s baby, Danielle, was born a month before me. She was Town Mouse and I was Bush Mouse. I was the first white baby born in the Mansa clinic, 18 months after they arrived, and my mother didn’t see a doctor until late in her labour, when we were both troubled. Afterwards, she washed in a pitch-dark bathroom and then discovered next morning that it was thick with flies and filthy; it made her sick. She remembers the local women laughing at her mottled, funny-looking baby, but says she didn’t mind.

Mary and Dervala

We didn’t have many photos from Zambia in our house in Limerick—a few square, white-bordered prints of leopards, my christening, and the gleaming young men on the football team at St. Clement’s Secondary School, where my father taught. But there were dozens and dozens of photos of my younger sisters, born six and nine years later, and I decided—with more logic than bitterness—that this was because they were so clearly cute, while I had brown hair and glasses.

It wasn’t until a trip home last September that I remembered the yellow boxes of slides. My parents hadn’t owned a slide projector, and we had never seen them properly. Over the years their pictures had faded first into mystery and then into oblivion. At some point they had been shunted up to the attic. My mother wasn’t sure about letting me have them—I’m known to lose things—but I persuaded my sister to climb up to the attic and pass them down to me, in a precarious operation that had the three of us yelping “Oh Jesus! Watch it!”

I brought the slides back to San Francisco and eventually got round to shipping them to a scanning service down the road in Burlingame. They sent them on to Mumbai, where Indian workers would scan each slide by hand and color-correct them for my digital approval, then return them to San Francisco along with a DVD copy of their contents.

We are moving, says my friend Richard, from a world of things to a world of flows. The Zambia slides had a long journey in years and miles. They were carried across four continents and three decades, encased in yellow plastic boxes, in suitcases, in bubble wrap and styrofoam peanuts, in cardboard boxes and packing tape, until one day their atoms were reborn as bits and their hidden stories began to flow.

I opened the links on my computer at work. There was the baby that was once me—smiling, pondering, sleeping, bawling, floating. There were my parents, hip and beautiful and improbably young, wearing bright colors. And there was Zambia, dusty, sunny, with new brick buildings and vivid red bushes.

Sean, Mary, Dervala

These were my blurred stories but not my memories, and I wished that I were discovering them with my mother and father instead of sitting alone 5,000 miles away. Digital photos don’t live anywhere. There’s no ritual of setting up the projector and dimming the lights. You’re not passing loose photos across a kitchen table, or squeezing in beside someone to turn the pages of an album. Loosed on the web, these photos seemed ephemeral and indestructible, detached and yet achingly intimate, years ago and yesterday.

I sent the links to my sister in Canada and to my friends at work, because I wanted the photos seen. How can you not bite your lip at the sight of a tiny baby, wet and kicking after a basin-bath, even if that baby is—somehow—yourself?

As I said, I was six when my sister was born, and as an almost-only child I believed myself to be self-sufficient. I remember vividly the night I learned to read, some time before I was four. My mother was re-reading an Enid Blyton story about Santa Claus getting stuck in the chimney of a factory. I was curled under her arm, sucking my thumb and imbibing the bliss of a story, and then there was a moment when the words on the page unscrambled, and I knew by the shape of them what each one said. It was fabulously exciting. From now on, I could read myself a story any time I wanted, forever and ever. It was my emancipation.

That’s what I remember—being a good girl, being the big sister, being able to tie my own shoes and put on my pyjamas, being able to learn off my spellings and read my own bedtime stories. All my life, I have shrunk from needing things from others. Yet these Zambia photos tell a different story, one that makes my throat swell. I wasn’t an independent little creature. I was a baby who was swaddled and held—in the crook of my father’s arm, on my mother’s hip, on their laps and shoulders, in lakes and on land—and I accepted it with grace and satisfaction. My parents didn’t have a Baby Bjorn to keep their hands free for their iPhones. Even though the Zambian babies were carried in wraps, it hadn’t occurred to my parents to do the same. They brought me everywhere—on safari in the back of a friend’s tiny Beetle, to parties with their childless friends, backpacking through Kenya, Zimbabwe, and Tanzania. We were a trio.

This year, 2010, my parents will be married forty years, and my mother will turn sixty. I no longer gaze up at them daily with total dependence and devotion, but now I know how much I once did. And through their old photos I’ve learned to read another love story.

Green

Christening

Wow

If I know aught of myself, no one whose mind is introspective—and mine is painfully so—can have a less respect for his present identity, than I have for the man Elia. I know him to be light, and vain, and humorsome; a notorious ***; addicted to ****: averse from counsel, neither taking it, nor offering it;—*** besides; a stammering buffoon; what you will; lay it on, and spare not; I subscribe to it all, and much more, than thou canst be willing to lay at his door—but for the child Elia—that “other me,” there, in the back-ground—I must take leave to cherish the remembrance of that young master—with as little reference, I protest, to this stupid changeling of five-and-forty, as if it had been a child of some other house, and not of my parents. I can cry over its patient small-pox at five, and rougher medicaments. I can lay its poor fevered head upon the sick pillow at Christ’s, and wake with it in surprise at the gentle posture of maternal tenderness hanging over it, that unknown had watched its sleep. I know how it shrank from any the least colour of falsehood.—God help thee, Elia, how art thou changed! Thou art sophisticated.—I know how honest, how courageous (for a weakling) it was—how religious, how imaginative, how hopeful! From what have I not fallen, if the child I remember was indeed myself,—and not some dissembling guardian, presenting a false identity, to give the rule to my unpractised steps, and regulate the tone of my moral being!

That I am fond of indulging, beyond a hope of sympathy, in such retrospection, may be the symptom of some sickly idiosyncrasy. Or is it owing to another cause; simply, that being without wife or family, I have not learned to project myself enough out of myself; and having no offspring of my own to dally with, I turn back upon memory and adopt my own early idea, as my heir and favourite?

—Charles Lamb, ”New Year’s Eve,” 1821

Smell

Back in July, I met a woman who has no sense of smell. She shook huge quantities of salt and pepper onto her salad to prod her tastebuds, but most flavors were lost on her. I couldn’t imagine being deprived of my wine-loving gluttony, but she’d never known anything different.

Barbara Kingsolver has a piece in The Poisonwood Bible where Adah returns to America after years in the Congo. She marvels at supermarkets, which have a massive, odorless arrays of food, and misses the smell assaults of her African market.

The US is terrified of smell, I think. Procter & Gamble has warned us about all the nooks that harbor body odors, and we’re careful to hunt them down with the right products. There are too many people in New York to escape smells completely—our garbage ripens on the sidewalk, and Chinatown smells of raw fish and cooking all winter long. For the most part, though, you can persuade antiseptic Americans to bond over hushed stories of the guy in the office who had B.O., or the time they rode the Paris metro.

I wonder, what’s the big deal?

My friend Mark is taking steroids for a particularly nasty sinus attack, and can now smell properly for the first time in years. The experience seems traumatic. He’s being mugged by a sense he’s ignored until now. He sends me plaintive notes about previously unremarked smells and tastes—cleaning fluid, garlic breath, Diet Coke.

“I’m particularly concerned about the cat’s ass,” he says.

I realize that compared to him, I’ve been living in the olfactory equivalent of Pepys’ London, all chamber pots and reeking fish. I kind of like it. Nostalgie de la boue.

Could we launch a serious threat to P & G by offering sinus cauterization as a cosmetic procedure for the sensitive? No more need for Shake ‘n’ Vac, scented tampons, or Diptyque candles at $45 a pop.

On second thoughts, the economy might collapse altogether.

Neighborhood

When I first moved to Manhattan, almost everyone I knew was between 25 and 30. The school you’d been to seemed much more important than your Old Country. In fact, some of the new arrivals seemed to regard Kentucky or Michigan as the Old Country, and the extreme cases thought that Harvard was.

Carroll Gardens is different still, despite all the chi-chi restaurants that opened for yuppies like me. Most people at Saturday’s party were Irish, Italian, or ‘half-and-half’, as Dominick says. Each side told jokes about the other. Matt, my Santa Claus neighbor, says:

“The Irish people and the Italian people, that can be a real beautiful mix for a marriage.”

Everyone wanted to know what part of Ireland I was from. Matt told me that his friend, Damian, who was killed in the Trade Towers, was one of nine kids of a family from Donegal. They all grew up in Inwood in the ’70s, when it was still an Irish neighborhood. Matt’s from the Bronx, but his family had a summer house in the Catskills next to all these Inwood families. Four Green Fields, they called it. Matt’s father would put on a brogue when talking with the rest of the Four Green Fields men, and the kids would tease him for it. Matt was a year or two younger than Damian and was dying to hang out with the bigger boys.

I realized I’d read a huge New York Times feature about Damian and Inwood a few weeks back. Sonuvagun, If Isn’t Dominion. The article isn’t online any more, but I remember that the whole family was crazy for Gaelic football. Damian was the youngest boy, and his father used to put him down to bed doing commentary on an imaginary match where the brothers all played on the same team.
“And Michael passes the ball to Sean…and Sean passes the ball to Eugene…and Eugene heads it over to Paul….”
The ball always ended up with Damian, and he always scored the winning goal. Lucky kid. He was golden, Matt says.