Everything Will Be Forgotten
A few years ago, I found these old pictures of my mother, Frances Rodick. They were taken in 1942 and, over the past three years, I used them to build images that would say something about her life, and her death. Not just because she was my mother, but because she was the most powerful person in my life—even when she had no power at all. She died in 2010, after a difficult life filled with grief and rage and fear. She spent the last fifteen years of that life being ground down by the violent rot of dementia, until what was left of her was barely anything at all.
The images I made said as much, or more, about me as they said about her. Elsewhere I’ve written, “Maybe these pictures of Frances are a kind of biography—of her, of me, of her and me stitched together in that sad and harrowing way we never stopped being.”
But I’d never made what might formally be called a self-portrait. I’d thought of it, taken a few stabs even, but nothing came of it. Then, a couple of years after finding the photos of my mother, I found more old photographs—small beaten up prints. They show me as a child, maybe four years old, standing naked in a bathtub. My father—it must have been my father—had taken them over half a century ago.
I was interested if not fascinated. Contrary to the drama that popular culture would have us expect, nothing about these pictures hit me immediately. No big emotional reaction. At first I wanted to say that they made me think of how vulnerable children are (how vulnerable I was?) but that was just me being lazy and reaching for cliché, even if that impression did cross my mind.
No, what these pictures first got me thinking about was time. And, particularly as I enter what’s euphemistically called late middle age, I thought of how much of it goes by so astonishingly fast. It’s a banal observation and, yes, another cliché as well. But at least it's more honest than the one about vulnerability.
Nevertheless, that thinking started prodding me further, into other territories, the ones that scatter through the fog of time and memory. I tried to remember what happened in the early days of that long span of time, of those jagged things that sometimes happen in the secret life of families. I remember those things as occasional explosions, but mostly, as things that just, well, happened…first over minutes and, then, over years. But what seems more important is that they, those things, came to stay. They stayed in the form of deep and long shadows, unremitting whispers, occasional but almost always silent cries from voices I can barely tell apart.
Looking at those photographs carried me to a place that should have been intolerable but like almost all such places, wasn’t. Not then, and not now. I realized—again—what I knew all along: that travelling to that place—which, in its past and present incarnations, exists inside me—is finally inescapable and necessary. It's what I'm left with.
That place was, and is, a world of riddles never answered, derangements never cured, and wrongs never made right. Vengeances never slaked. A place of ravaged time, yawning and ominous futures, and, what I know is death, both incipient and final. That boy in the picture will be a corpse, far longer than not, even after such a long life. Like his mother. Exactly like, and precisely unlike, everyone.
Those small photographs helped me see and feel the world where everything will be forgotten.
So, the images I made are to give a voice to that place, that world that was planted, that grew, and that came to stay. As I changed, it changed. Or so I suppose. But enough of it feels constant and unyielding, that I can see it dawning—emergent and full of dark promise—in those pictures of a naked boy in the bath.