We of a certain age and perhaps a certain degree of affluence may not have a huge store of old photographs. Certainly nowhere near as many as are being accumulated in this digital age. But, thank God for the ones we have! They capture past moments of a reality, for the most part, a reality that had a gala edge. One can almost enter an old scene and re-experience the moment. Sometimes that step-in even will allow you to supply your own soundtrack.
There is one that I treasure of my wonderful, large-souled, big-bosomed aunt who never married. She was the taker of our pictures, the owner of the cameras, the photojournalist of our family’s very insignificant significant moments. Born in 1900 — so her age was always easy to remember — Big Gert — her figure and her largesse earned her that name — was the only one in her family to complete high school. She immediately landed an excellent job that launched a career as a legal secretary. Her beauty and brightness made her the pet of a set of some nouveau riche Irish lawyers. The job led her into a life of generous opulence where she became another family backbone and was referred to as our rich aunt. She livened up all our lives, enriched them, and bailed out many of them, especially that of my own widowed mom, Maggie Murphy.
The picture was taken in 1956. She is standing in a darkened hallway that fed into a living room where I know a party was taking place. There is a flashbulb jammed up each nostril, and she smiles toothlessly, dentures having been removed to add to the comic effect. The youngest child of widow Trepold, she had lost those teeth during an impoverished childhood in an old Brooklyn neighborhood that they used to refer to as the Northside.
She must have done that flashbulb trick a lot on other occasions that were not caught in film. I recently attended a wake more than half a century after the taking of that picture. An elderly woman (a rank that I am gingerly and reluctantly joining) whom I hadn’t seen in scores of years said, “Oh, I remember those Murphys. They were high steppers.”
I had never heard that expression before. How quaint, how colorful, and how ego-gratifying to have my simple tribe referred to as high steppers. And she then added, “I remember your aunt with the flashbulbs up her nose.”
I have that picture and others like it. I also have the one of her stripped down to a corset and very wide, skin-covering bra; she is twirling a recently shed garment in the air. Sadly, there is no soundtrack to accompany this act. The song was always “Rosie, the Queen of the Models,” and always a command performance at family gatherings. Gatherings of beer and highballs and very simple fare, sometimes spontaneous, always inclusive. Gatherings of songs and recitations — “Gunga Din,” “Ivan Skavinsky Skavar,” “Levinsky at the Wedding,” “Oh Willie I Forgive You,” “Oh They Built the Ship Titanic,” “To Arms, to Arms,” “There’s a Ring Around the Moon,” and all the world wars’ sing-alongs.
Yes, pictures hold memories. The frozen memory is but a snippet of a life. The before and the after are not told or sung there. The births and the deaths, the transitions, the proverbial ups and downs and twists and turns become the books that frame the events.
My wonderful aunt fell victim to depression as she aged. We saw her lose her “affect” and we were helpless and saddened. Had we been more knowledgeable of psychology or social services (had they existed as they do today), perhaps we might have suggested some sort of therapy. Perhaps we wouldn’t have dared because of her spiritedness and our own timidity.
Another picture that she left me was taken the day after the flashbulb incident. I know the date precisely. I am in it, standing on a street corner in New York City. Kneeling at my feet are three grinning teenage friends in mock piety; their laughter was prompted by their posturing as though in a holy card. (Holy cards were the things that Catholic kids used to collect prior to Vatican II.) My arm is stretched over them as if in bestowing a blessing. Actually, there is a cigarette in my hand.
And that picture always stirs up the memory of another song:
She sailed away in the merry month of May on the back of a crocodile.
“You see,” said she, “I’m as safe as safe can be,” as she sailed off down the Nile. . . .
At the end of the ride, the lady was inside, and the smile was on the crocodile.
The date of that picture was Sept. 8, 1956. It was the day I entered the convent.
Gert Murphy is a retired public school teacher who lives in Montauk. She recently joined the Ashawagh Hall Writers Workshop.