II. Learning to see
The events in our lives happen in a sequence in time, but in their significance to ourselves they find their own order, a timetable not necessarily — perhaps not possibly — chronological. The time as we know it subjectively is often the chronology that stories and novels follow: it is the continuous thread of revelation. -EW
“We thought at first we would begin at the beginning – with the pictures.”
Photography taught Eudora Welty that life is a moving thing. The good photographer, and the good writer, must capture the transience of life, Welty believed.
My mother was a travel agent. For our family, transience was not just a fact of life. It was a business. Every year she booked hundreds of vacations for families wanting to get get away from their homes for the only two weeks of the year that they could. Some wanted relaxation, some wanted adventure. She sent some to the beaches of Hawaii and others to the outback of Australia. On some occassions, we got to sojourn ourselves.
When I was 10, we embarked on our most exciting journey.
Mom had brought home a video about “The Big Red Boat” weeks before our departure. My sister and I must have watched it 25 times before we boarded the ship. We knew we would love it when the explained that freshly baked “chocolate ship cookies” would be delivered to your cabin if you called for them.
Our greatest delight was discovering that they really did play bingo every night after dinner. Our greatest disappointment was that no employee had ever heard of chocolate ship cookies.
One night, I attended a magician’s workshop and learned how to juggle. It’s a dazzling skill I’ve continued to find quite useful. My sister and I swam all afternoon, and there seemed to always be a McCaulay Culkin movie on to watch in the mornings. We never were able to stay awake for the midnight buffet, but it was thrilling to know that it was an option.
After three days aboard the ship that had left Cape Canaveral (after we had spent a few days at Disneyworld!), the ship got off at the Port of Nassau.
As soon as we were off the ship, we were bombarded by men with taxis, offering to drive us around the island. I was sure my mom would decline, getting in a car with a stranger in a strange land felt immediately uncomfortable to me. But she said, yes, we’d love a tour of the island.
In an old taxi that probably cost my mom a fortune, we hit the road fast. Mom sat in front. Erica and I belted up in back.
We went to one side of Nassau and saw resorts with children rejoicing down water slides and women in bikinis. The ocean and pool water was blue, I imagined she would jump out, or that I might become her if I jumped in:
We begged mom to let us stay, but this, of course, wasn’t possible. We only had the car and driver for two hours.
The other side of Nassau was different. The homes were run-down shacks, and the roads were not well paved. Families walked around outside barefoot.
On one street, the taxi slowed and I saw a woman in her yard holding a chicken by it’s feet. She wore a red-streaked dirty apron and had a large knife in her other hand. She began cutting off the head of the chicken, and her blood-shot eyes stared at mine for what felt like an hour.
The taxi driver didn’t say anything about it – he kept driving through town and talking as if we had not driven past anything disturbing.
“Did you see that?” I remember asking my mom and sister afterward. They hadn’t.
I took off the bracelet souvenir that my mom had bought me just an hour before and put it in my purse. I put my sunglasses on and kept looking out the window.
Soon, we returned to the ship. That night, I didn’t play bingo.
Robert MacNeil wrote a book about Welty called Eudora Welty: Seeing Black and White. From the beginning, Welty was a compassionate observer, unafraid of the differences between us and within us, the journeys that separate us from each other and from ourselves.
Things are transient, I realize, because they change and grow.
I know that growth is felt in the gut, often en route to someplace else. It has loaded its suitcases into the backs of many taxis and onto the cargo rooms of many ships. It floats on oceans and winds up unfamiliar roads. It is red and blue and all the colors.