Wednesday, September 9, 2015

(E11: Why I Like This Photo) Invisible Fears

The following essay was originally composed when I was a grad student in Buffalo, NY, back in the 1990's. I've tinkered with it off and on since then.

My grandmother must’ve been double-caulking all the seams in her life-boat when, during the Great Depression, President Roosevelt told the country from his wheelchair that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Either she missed the message, or it came too late to do her any good (she was past thirty then). By the time I knew her, she was far more paralyzed than FDR ever was, and not by polio. She could remember the sinking of the Titanic, and she was certain we were all going down with the ship. —If we ever got on one, that is.

My maternal grandmother, July, 1949. Photo taken by my Aunt.
There’s a photograph of my grandmother which captures the only occasion in her life (“July 1949,” it says on the back) when she got into a boat. Only about twelve feet long, it isn’t much of a boat. And perched up there in the bow, she isn’t very much in it. But you have to understand that she was deathly afraid of water, and for most of her life she lived in or near Duluth, Minnesota—not a good place for a hydrophobe. So our “10,000 lakes” (including the biggest of them all, Lake Superior) must have been a constant menace. I’d like to think that my grandmother was courageous on this occasion, but my aunt forced her to pose for the picture, and in fact the boat never even left the shore. (Look closely, and you'll see the chains securing the boat to dry land.) So I have to see it instead as an image of defeat: yielding to the demands of my aunt’s camera, Granny briefly pretended to relinquish the phobia that made her unique in a family of waterlovers.

Indeed, it’s as a portrait of an increasingly phobic personality that this picture fascinates me. As she sits there on the shore, poised on the narrow, shifting margin between security and threat, I remember a woman who cowered in the closet during thunderstorms, a woman deeply suspicious of Catholics, a woman uncomfortable with overt gestures of friendship. She was so afraid of death and disaster that she finally fell in love with them, like a proper agoraphobic hypochondriac. I can still hear her obsessively rattling the doorknobs, fidgeting with the deadbolts, and eventually refusing to leave home at all, except to visit her doctor. (Once, in a good year, she managed three unnecessary trips to the hospital with phantom heart failure.)

In this photo, I can see even more of the invisible but irresistible fears that troubled her last years. Stemming tides we couldn’t imagine, she used to mutter to herself and fuss with the kitchen faucets. Quenching flames we couldn’t envision, she used to count to five and fiddle with the knobs on the stove. And in the end, curbing a genuine hunger we couldn’t satisfy, she fought with the nurses and refused to eat during her very last, very necessary, visit to the hospital. Flood, fire, and famine: I see them all in this picture which tries to promise calm journeys and safe moorings. In fact, now I always imagine my grandmother floating backwards out onto the water, drifting off unawares, because—in spite of all her frenzied efforts—it was that first and fundamental plague that got her in the end. She died of congestive heart failure, a kind of drowning one suffers on shore, in a bed, not a boat.

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