Memories of My Mother, Carolina Oates
Our lives are time travel, moving in one direction only
A shorter version of this essay originally appeared in the New York Times Magazine, May 12, 1996. Reprinted in I‘ve Always Meant to Tell You: Letters to Our Mothers. Edited by Constance Warloe.
Edited and arranged by Robert Friedman
May 14, 1941. It was a time of nerves. Worried-sick what was coming my father would say of this time in our family history but who could guess it, examining this very old and precious snapshot of Mommy and me in our back yard playing with kittens?
Looked like I would be drafted. Nobody knew what was coming. At Harrison’s, we were working double shifts. In the papers were cartoons of Hitler but none of it was funny. The nightmare of Pearl Harbor is seven months away but the United States has been in a continuous state of nerves since Hitler executed his blitzkrieg against an unprepared Poland in September 1939; by May 1941, with England under attack, the U.S. is engaged in an undeclared war in the Atlantic Ocean with Germany…But I am three years, eleven months old and oblivious to the concerns of adults that are not immediate concerns about me.
My twenty-seven-year-old father Frederic Oates, whom everyone calls “Fred” or “Freddy,” is taking pictures of Mommy and me behind our farmhouse in Millersport, New York; it is a Sunday, and Daddy is not working on the assembly line at Harrison Radiator, a division of General Motors seven miles away in Lockport, New York, involved in what is believed to be “defense work.”
It is a tense, rapidly-shifting, unpredictable era before TV when news comes in terse radio announcements and in the somber pages of the Buffalo Evening News delivered in the late afternoon six days a week. But such global turbulence is remote from our farm in western New York where everything is green and humid in prematurely hot May and the grass in the back yard grows thick and raggedy. Here my twenty-four-year-old mother Carolina, whom everyone calls “Lena,” is cuddling with me in the grass playing with our newborn black kittens, smiling as Daddy takes pictures.
Taking pictures with the blue box camera. Of dozens, hundreds of pictures taken in those years only a few seem to have survived and how strange, how astonishing it would have been for us to have thought, in May 1941—These pictures will outlive us!
How happy we are, and how good and simple life must have seemed to that long-lost child Joyce Carol—(who did not know that she was to be the “firstborn” of three children)—with little in her life more vexing than the ordeal of having her curly hair brushed and combed free of snarls and fixed in place with ribbons, and being “dressed up” for some adult special occasion.
You can see in the snapshot behind Mommy and me a young, black-barked cherry tree and behind the tree the somewhat dour two-storey woodframe farmhouse owned by my mother’s (step)parents John and Lena Bush.
Built in 1888 on Transit Road, at the time a narrow two-lane country road linking the small town of Lockport with the sprawling city of Buffalo twenty miles away, and surprisingly large by Millersport standards (where some of our neighbors’ houses were single-storey, lacking cellars, hardly more than cabins or shanties), this steep-roofed farmhouse was razed decades ago yet resides powerfully—indomitably!—in my memory, the site of recurring dreams. Note the exterior cellar door, a common sight in this now-vanished rural America, like the rain barrel at the corner of the house where rain water was collected—and used for all purposes except drinking.
Behind Daddy as he takes our picture (and not visible to the viewer) is the farm-yard: weatherworn barn with pewter lightning rod atop the highest pitch of the roof; chicken coop surrounded by a barbed-wire fence to keep out raccoons, foxes, and the wandering dogs of neighbors; storage sheds; fields, fruit orchards. To the right of the sliding barn doors is a smaller door leading into the corner of the barn that houses my grandfather Bush’s smithy with its anvil and hammer, blacksmith tools, small coal furnace and bellows that turns with a crank. Red-feathered chickens with no idea that they are “free range” are wandering about pecking in the dirt, oblivious of all else. All these—lost.
Taking pictures has been our salvation. Without taking pictures our memories would melt, evaporate. The invention of photography in the 19th-century—and the “snapshot” in the 20th century—revolutionized human consciousness; for when we claim to remember our pasts we are almost certainly remembering our favorite snapshots, in which the long-faded past is given a visual immortality.
Taking pictures was an adult privilege in 1941. My way of taking pictures was to scribble earnestly with Crayolas in coloring books and in tablets. Grass would be horizontal motions of the green crayon. Black kitten, black crayon. Chickens were upright scribbles, vaguely humanoid in expression. My parents, I would not attempt. No human figures would appear in any of my childhood drawings, only very deep-green grass and trees, kittens and cats with fur of many hues, Rhode Island red chickens.
No romance is so profound and so enduring as the romance of early childhood. The yearning we feel through our lives for our young, attractive and mysterious parents—who were so physically close to us and yet, apart from us, inaccessible and unknowable. Is this the very origin of “romance,” coloring and determining all that is to follow in our lifetimes? I am drawn to stare at these old family snapshots lovingly kept in albums and in envelopes.
And so I am drawn too to snapshots of strangers’ families, sifting through boxes of old postcards and snapshots in second-hand shops—though these individuals are not “my” family, yet frequently they are not so very different from my family.
Children in snapshots of long-ago, given a spurious sort of immortality by an adult’s love, and all of them probably now departed. The almost overwhelming wish comes to me—I want to write their stories! That is the only way I can know these strangers—by writing their stories…
The backfields shimmering in sunshine, humming with summer insects, iridescent dragonflies’ wings. The countryside, farm region of western New York State, northern Erie County near the Niagara County border, near the Tonawanda Creek and the Erie Barge Canal. Waking to such days, a succession of days—what happiness! To a child, eternity is this morning, this hour. Forever is now. Permanent.
Into the pear orchard: a harvest of greeny-yellow Bartlett pears. How hard they have seemed, like stone, green stone, for weeks. And now ripe, ready to be picked. That ripe sun-warmed smell. Picking pears by hand, a single pear, a single gesture. Placing, not dropping, the pear in the bushel-basket. You taught me patience: Like this! Daddy was the one who used the ladder.
A harvest of pears—so many. Some of the pears were for us to eat then, some were for canning; most were sold by the roadside, in quart baskets, pecks, bushels.
We sold apples, too—not so many, since we had only a few apple trees. And black cherries (sweet) and red cherries (sour). And tomatoes—those juicy, plump red First Lady tomatoes, pole climbers, with their strong tart smell. And sweet corn, peppers, onions.
Those long summer days. Cicadas screaming out of the trees. Listen to those crazy things! you’d say, laughing. The very music of the country, of deep intransigent summer; like crickets at dusk, the cries of owls in the near distance, a faint, dry rustling of leaves. Flashes of lightning—”heat lightning”—silent nervous rippling veins of flame rending the sky and disappearing in seemingly the same instant. You look, it’s already gone. How nature, how the world surrounding us, is us; yet shrouded in mystery.
You and I are in the backfield picking corn, tomatoes. We’re in the barn, we’re feeding chickens in the mottled pecked-at dirt surrounding the coop, tossing grain, and the chickens come clucking, fretting, plumping their wings, and the big rooster, his lurid-red comb, his mad yellow eye, that look of male impatience to all roosters, and I’m squealing, shrinking back to avoid the rooster who pecks at feet when he’s in a bad mood, and where is my own chicken?—my pet chicken—Happy Chicken, so-called? A reddish-brown bird, with a bad limp. If you pet a chicken the right way, if you show you’re not going to hurt it, it will go very still and crouch down.
We’re in the kitchen, upstairs in the farmhouse, you’re cooking tomatoes, simmering them slowly into a thick ripe sauce in a large pan on the stove beneath the bright yellow General Electric clock (bought with stamps from Loblaw’s, pasted assiduously into a booklet, the accumulation of months) with its shiny black numerals and red hands moving slowly, imperially, unswerving through the days. Those long summer days I believed, as a child, would never end.
The old farmhouse was razed years ago, the very site of its foundation filled with earth, all trace of its existence obliterated. Yet I see it clearly, and the lilac tree that grew close beside the back door, a child-size tree into which I climbed, a dreamy child given to solitude in places near the house, near you. Within the sound of your raised voice. Joyce! Joy-ce! Why is it always a misty-hazy summer day, that peculiar translucence to the light that means the air is heavy with moisture though the sky is cloudless, the sun prominent overhead?
The house of my childhood is the house of recurring dreams yet subtly altered, the rooms mysterious, their dimensions uncertain—always there is a promise, alarming yet tantalizing, of rooms yet undiscovered, rooms beckoning, yet to be explored. Your presence permeates the house—you are the house, its infinite rooms. I see you pushing me on the swing, your hair reddish brown, you’re wearing a shirt and pale blue pedal pushers—I’m a lanky child of 9 or 10 on the swing Daddy made for me, the swing I loved, hemp rope hanging from a metal pipe secured between the branches of two tall trees in the backyard.
In the snapshots, the house appears about to dissolve in light; in my memory, and in other snapshots, the house is sided with a gritty practicable gray, “simulated brick” made of asphalt. Did Daddy put the siding on the house? I suspect he did. And there’s the outside cellar door, at an angle against the rear of the house.
If I could slip back into that instant, as the shutter clicks! But I can’t, of course. This species of time travel is wholly imaginary. Our lives are time travel, moving in one direction only. We accompany one another as long as we can; as long as time grants us.