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I’m taking intermittent breaks from the calendar entries to focus on some of my grandfather’s photographs, which tell just as many stories as the calendars do.

What we have here is a demonstration of how five individual people will interpret the same unambiguous request.

Summer 1960.

Summer 1960. In the back yard at 1107 Hope Street.

It looks like all five members of the Stamford Blumenaus are gathered around the table in perfect concord, at the same sort of al fresco dinner that millions of Americans will enjoy this month.

Here’s the story as I assemble it in my mind:

- My grandpa has set up the timer on his camera to get a genuine family photo, rather than yet another shot that has everybody but him in it.

We can gather this from, among other things, his side-saddle posture (which also gives us an excellent view of his work-stained khaki pants.)

He is either sitting that way because he doesn’t have time to get his legs swung in before the shutter clicks, or because sitting the “right” way will turn his back to the camera and detract from the shot he has in mind.

- In a radical departure, he seems to have urged the family to eat for the camera, to simulate a candid shot. This is not to be one of those sit-and-grin pictures; he wants a slice of life.

Certainly, his own posture leaves no doubt as to what he wants the rest of the family to do for the camera.

XXX

This hamburger has seconds to live.

Behind him is his teenage son, later to be my father. Young Rod seems perfectly fine with the paternal edict, stuffing something into his mouth for posterity.

My grandmother is less convinced. She is obligingly holding a piece of food — a cherry tomato? a strawberry? But her facial expression says: You people can be silly if you want. I’m not going along with these wacky ideas. I’ll eat after I hear the click.

Backyard Picnic Grandma

My great-grandma is old enough to remember when getting your picture taken meant putting on your Sunday dress and holding your breath for five hours. Eating for the camera is an unexpected convenience of modern life, and, judging from the slant of her mouth, she is content to join in.

Next to her is my future Aunt Elaine, a member of a budding generation of women who will go to college and hold jobs and do everything men can do, only better. Game for new experiences and adventures, she chomps right in.

Backyard Picnic Grossee Elaine

So, we have four eaters and one skeptic. That’s a pretty good percentage. I guess there’s a holdout in every crowd.

(I wonder if my grandpa saw the developed picture, looked at his wife and sighed in exasperation. It is possible.)

We will end this post as my grandparents appear to have ended the meal — with a pot of campfire-style grill-brewed coffee, the sort that today’s Starbucks-coddled generation would probably spit, horrified, into the weeds.

Want some?

Backyard Picnic Grill

Wednesday, August 18, 1971, was a summer day like countless others on my grandfather’s calendars — humid and hazy, with a high of 88.

But on this day, the lurid orange sun had to share space in my grandpa’s hand-drawn sky with a foreboding sign of the times.

August 18, 1971.

August 18, 1971. The Mets and Yanks, both in fourth place, win.

The threat of environmental pollution, so long ignored, was becoming inescapable by August of 1971.

News programs were making note of the growing crisis. On the very night of Aug. 18, David Brinkley reported for nearly five minutes on NBC’s Nightly News about a group of schoolchildren who wrote letters about pollution to U.S. Sen. Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin. (The kids presumably saw Nelson, the founder of Earth Day, as a sympathetic ear.)

TV watchers that month were also seeing one of the most famous public service announcements of all time, launched in April to coincide with the second Earth Day.

Seen through skeptical 21st-century eyes, the ad stumbles because of its lack of authenticity. It’s now known that lead actor Iron Eyes Cody was the son of Sicilian immigrants to Louisiana, and had as much Native American blood as Joe DiMaggio.

The use of Native American imagery to make a point also rankles. America has never really taken care of its original residents — in fact, we’ve kinda screwed them at every turn — but we’re glad to trot them out to make a point in a big ad campaign.

None of that seemed to bother viewers much at the time. The PSA resonated so well, and was so talked-about, that it ran for 15 years. I remember seeing it, and you probably do too:

Of course, the message about pollution’s dangers didn’t have to come via the TV. My grandfather might have noticed it just by looking out his window.

According to newspaper reports, the state health department issued an air pollution watch for Fairfield County on the 18th because of a stagnant high-pressure weather system extending from the Midwest to New York. It was the first such alert of the summer in the county; a similar alert was declared in New York City.

The weather system was expected to remain in place through the weekend, trapping pollution in the air.

Officials called on residents and businesses to cut unnecessary combustion — such as driving — and said they might require a major power plant in the area to switch to low-sulfur fuel.

I don’t know how long the alert lasted, or whether my family took any action to curb its infinitessimal share of Fairfield County’s smog.

I do know that my grandpa’s calendar entry for the following Sunday makes no mention of smog, pollution or clouds. I’ll take that as a positive indicator.

Man’s inhumanity to the environment remained a top news story well after the smog lifted in southwestern Connecticut.

Just two days after this calendar entry, a U.S. Navy refueling ship accidentally dumped 1,000 gallons of oil into the Pacific Ocean, fouling the beach at President Nixon’s oceanside California retreat.

And air pollution issues continued to show up on my grandpa’s calendars year ’round, not just in the thick of summer.

February 10, 1972. An air inversion is ...

February 10, 1972. An air inversion is the same weather pattern that contributed to trapping pollution in August of 1971.

 

Only about two hours before I sat down to type this, I went down the stairs and into my modest backyard garden, where my jalapeno plants had been busy.

I spent several minutes there, picking enough sun-ripened deep green fruit to fill both hands (and I have big Gil Hodges-style meathooks … as I said, my jalapeno plants had been busy.)

Then I marched my takings upstairs, mixed them with some vinegar and kosher salt, and made a tall jar of vaguely Tabascoid hot sauce that should enliven my food for some time to come if I can keep from sneaking spoonfuls between meals.

July 26, 2014.

July 26, 2014.

It is at times like this that I feel sorry for people who don’t have space to garden, and mildly contemptuous of people who have land but don’t plant anything in it.

I do not deserve to stand on any gardening soapbox — my ‘penos seem to thrive on little more than sun, rain and benign neglect.

But really, it doesn’t take hours of back-breaking labor to grow just a few herbs, fruits or vegetables. They’ll add flavor to your table, while giving you a sense of pride and accomplishment beyond your actual effort.

My grandpa was a real gardener — much more committed and hard-working than I’ve ever been.

This week’s calendar entry finds him both investing time in his garden,¬†and profiting from it.

(I assume “dust toms” means “apply some sort of fertilizer and/or insect repellent to one’s tomatoes.” I similarly assume “1 lb Beans” means “Picked 16 ounces of beans.”)

I bet those beans tasted good, if my grandma didn’t boil the hell out of them, or something similarly ill-advised.

And, I bet my grandpa took pride in harvesting and eating them.

Just like I’m going to savor each spoonful of homemade jalapeno sauce I ladle onto my ice-cream sundaes.

July 26, 1975.

July 26, 1975. Mets win in extras; Yanks lose.

I mentioned last week I’d probably divert from the calendar entries for a few, and write a couple posts based primarily on my grandpa’s photos. Indeed.

Two years ago around this time, I wrote a post about a gorgeous, timeless heat-of-summer photo my grandpa captured.

Most likely, it was taken July 31, 1975, during a visit to Cove Island Park, a public park in Stamford overlooking Long Island Sound.

The picture I wrote about isn’t the only great photo my grandfather took on that trip. Y’all wanna click on this and look at it full-size for a minute:

Solitude

(Yes, there is a honkin’ big hair-thing in the photo, probably an artifact of the scanning process. I look at it from a Zen perspective: All things manmade must have a fault somewhere, or else they wouldn’t be manmade. Look past it, out toward the eternal sea.)

I am guessing the woman in the picture — laboriously dressed to block the sun, even on a 90-degree day — is my grandmother. She would have dressed like that to go to the beach.

And, since the original calendar entry mentions “lunch at Cove Island,” it’s possible that the bag or basket in her hand has a couple sammiches in it. It’s not a large bag, but my grandparents were not gluttonous.

I’m not hung up on literal reproduction of the day’s events, though. What I like is the story between the lines.

Check out the woman in long sleeves and pants, separated by both height and distance from the faraway figures on the beach.

She is so close to freedom and relaxation and pleasure, she can practically reach out and touch it. And yet, it is not hers to have.

Her clothing and posture suggest a certain fundamental ambivalence about it. She has deliberately brought herself to the place of sun- and sea-worship, but has come prepared to deny herself any participation.

Down on the beach, practically at the photo’s center, is a young family — what looks like two parents and a small child — suggesting fertility, vigor and action. Up on the viewing deck is a single person, suggesting stillness, confinement and loneliness. Is youth a release? The image suggests so.

Both a fence and a road separate the woman from the beach. In the endless dichotomy between civilization and nature, man and wilderness, she is staying firmly planted in the known, sanitized, well-defined world of settled life.

There is no visible threat to keep the woman on the deck away from the beach. No riptides; no thunderclouds; no crush of towel-to-towel, shoulder-to-shoulder bathers.

She just chooses not to go, even though the grass beckons with a wonderful deep green, and the sky presents a tapestry of deep blue dotted with cumulus white.

Also note, while we’re at it, the rich marine blue color of the observation deck. It’s sorta like a copy of the ocean … a flat, tamed version of the sea in which even the likes of my grandma can feel comfortable parking her feet.

I am sure my grandparents eventually made their way down to the beach, got comfortable after a fashion, and enjoyed their lunch.

But in this single fall of the shutter are more complicated possibilities.

Having spent last week on a depressed rumination about the aftermath of divorce, I’ll swing back the other way and contemplate the ties that bind.

The impetus for this week’s sermon is a picture from my grandpa’s photo archives, of a moment involving my parents.

(I suggested years ago that I might someday write some blog posts about his photos, in addition to his calendar items. You may see some of that in the next few weeks. Scope creep is my friend, at least during the dog days of summer.)

Untitled15

My folks are in an above-ground pool somewhere in Stamford, Connecticut. It might have belonged to a neighbor of my grandparents’ on Hope Street, though it might also have been my Great-Aunt Mary’s. It matters not.

My mom is relaxing in an inner tube, presumably because she does not want to completely submerge in the water.

My dad, cheerfully ignoring that cue, has just doused her with a splash of pool-water. He appears to be heartily enjoying the moment. Smirking, even.

(His sideburns add to the interpretation. Everything a man does seems to acquire a little extra swagger when sidies like that are involved.)

Oh, you dog, my mom seems to be saying as she recoils from the facewash.

splash

(For those who demand fealty to the calendar: This picture was most likely taken during a family visit to Stamford around the Fourth of July, 1975. Here, I’ll show you proof. Then we’ll move on.)

775

The picture of my folks in the pool seems, to me, to encapsulate all the things that spouses and life partners do to piss each other off.

Some are unintended. Others are bald-faced and deliberate and totally without shame, like a faceful of chlorinated water.

Some come and go, and are quickly forgotten. Others rankle, no matter how much we try to reason them away, and require things like professional therapy, or a couple nights on the couch, or a good old-fashioned angry have-it-out.

But — at least in some relationships — it all ends up under the bridge somewhere. As it did for my parents, who will celebrate their 47th wedding anniversary just about a week from now, pool rudeness notwithstanding.

This is not to say that people who get divorced — or people who stay single — are doing it wrong, or that lengthy relationships are the only definition of success.

It’s just a recognition of the power of forgiveness, and of the mysterious connection that can make people get over all the inconveniences, slights, pranks and wiseassery that human beings can inflict, even on the ones they love most.

I can’t explain it; but I know it when the camera captures it.