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New Old World

New Old World

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New Old World

Length:
794 pages
12 hours
Publisher:
Released:
Dec 5, 2016
ISBN:
9781370454365
Format:
Book

Description

Ticonderoga Fox had three wishes as a child: to live on an Indian reservation, to publish a book, and to see Paris. Now almost forty, the restless photojournalist has bagged the first two and is on her way to fulfilling the third. Beyond that, Ti’s future is out of focus.

NEW OLD WORLD is a late bloomer’s coming-of-age story that pits one headstrong woman against two continents. Motherless almost since birth and independent to a fault, Ti Fox has become expert at avoiding entanglements. In 1975 she uprooted herself from one edge of America to start a new life on the other. Now, in 1988, she’s on the move again, trading a good job and a good man in Oregon for a one-way ticket to see what the Old World has in store for her. It could be a garret to write in, a new photographic project, just a relaxing interlude—or something else altogether.

During her nine months in England and France, Ti has a series of encounters that call into question the choices she’s made, or overlooked. She finds rest, comfort, and inspiration by the sea in Dorset; is unexpectedly moved by her mother’s ancestral roots on the island of Guernsey; learns the story of her uncle’s time in France during the Second World War; and feels lonely for perhaps the first time in her life. In a weak moment in Paris, she contacts an Englishman she’d known as a college student, and sparks fly. Unhinged by the resulting cultural and religious war, Ti flees Paris for the south of France, ultimately landing in a new old world where creativity and human connection are in balance.

The story of Ticonderoga Fox is told principally from her own perspective, but is bookended by the voices of family and friends. Further enhancing the non-traditional narrative are black and white photographs and a bit of poetry. While NEW OLD WORLD focuses on Ti’s inner landscape, it also unfolds against a variety of backdrops, immersing the reader in geography, travel, culture, photography, and family dynamics.

(Enhanced 2018 edition contains a Reading Guide for book groups or individual readers.)

Publisher:
Released:
Dec 5, 2016
ISBN:
9781370454365
Format:
Book

About the author

C. D. Stowell is a writer, editor, and photographer who lives in Portland, Oregon. Having pulled up her East Coast roots and moved west in the mid-1970s, she spent the next decade living and working on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation in Oregon. Her book about the Warm Springs people, "Faces of a Reservation,” won the Oregon Book Award for Creative Non-Fiction in 1988. After using her skills in various educational and non-profit settings, she devoted herself to her family and began writing fiction. "New Old World" is her first novel, and she is currently working on a prequel. Ms. Stowell’s fiction expresses her passion for geography and culture, particularly a deep connection to America’s first people and an unapologetic Francophilia. You can communicate with the author via her blog at newoldworld.com.


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New Old World - C. D. Stowell

OVERTURE

BETTER THINGS

For my daughter

There are better things than a bomb,

dropped however humanely,

to inform children

that life is fragile,

that their parents have gone too far.

There are better things than a leafless tree,

a splintered tree,

a pile of dust,

snow aglow and wafting down,

slowly killing the rest.

This is obvious,

that death doesn’t prevent death,

war doesn’t bring peace,

better rarely comes from more.

And yet we blunder on.

Next to our worst impulses,

anything looks better.

Some among us

hone and burnish,

wresting best from better,

never satisfied.

We build to the sky,

but forget halfway there

why we started,

what it is that knits earth and sky together.

There are better things

than the limestone-and-glass lace

of the cathedrals and

the mathematical precision of the pyramids.

Like the thousand-year wait

for tree trunks to form their own cathedrals,

limbs arching in an embrace

far beyond metaphor.

Humble me, child.

Teach me about Spring’s persistent shoot-pushing

and the throaty habits of songbirds.

Show me where unheard rivers

murmur tirelessly,

cleaning themselves

of insults.

If there are better things

than these,

I have no name for them.

Virginia Mason Fox

April 1950

CHAPTER 1

TICONDEROGA

Portland, Oregon

1990

MY MOTHER LEFT ME WITH two manifestos: a poem that I puzzled over as a child, and a private hope delivered to me only lately.

My father gave me my considerable name: Ticonderoga Fox.

Together, Gerry and Virginia unwittingly supplied me with a birthdate that doubled as a command: March 4th! That active verb with its hidden subject was my modus operandi for forty years. Now, poised at the start of a decade my mother never reached, I prefer to move more deliberately and take the measure of things.

I grew up the only child in a home devoid of a woman’s laughter or tears. There wasn’t enough my father and I could say or do to fill the quiet, still rooms of our house. We were happiest in Gerry’s hardware store, customers’ shoes scuffing on the wood floor, nails clattering on the scale, paper bags rustling, and the cash register ringing.

Nights at home were the hardest, especially when the siren on the fire hall screamed, tearing Gerry out of his chair or his bed and away from me. Then I faced the darkness alone, my stomach knotted, waiting for my father to come home smelling of smoke, but unharmed.

Darkness, stillness, quiet. Dangerous places where I could bump into big unanswerable questions and dwell on absent people.

So I stayed in motion, spending daylight hours at large in my hometown, absorbing every detail on foot, bike, or skateboard. I loved noise and activity, and when I was too old to sleep with a nightlight I stacked 45s on my record player as a lullaby. I went to a big university in the city, where I rented apartments on bright, busy streets, rode the subways often, and studied in all-night coffee shops, the noisier the better.

I was an unlikely person to end up in the desert, but when I did, I favored the full-moon nights with coyotes yipping and National Public Radio coming into my trailer by cable.

By then I’d chosen a craft that had everything to do with light—arranging and recording light but also embracing the absence of light. In thrall to that beautiful duality, I filled the empty spaces in my life with photographs.

These days I can’t get enough of my dark, quiet attic room. Contact sheets fan around me like rays of the sun, animating and directing the story I want to tell about a particular year in my life. I examine the thumbnail prints, tiny windows into moments and sensations that are as vivid to me now as when I was roaming Old World streets just two years ago, catching trains, crying in public, and pacing a threadbare carpet in one Let’s Go hotel room or another. I’ve enlarged a few negatives to have a better look: a pig-tailed woman poised over her typewriter and tea, the sparkling sea beyond; an old man in wool, leaning on his cane between hedgerows; the impatient glare of a man in line at a Paris fromagerie, a cloth shopping bag wadded in his fist; a barefoot, boyish woman bent over her hoe, vineyards etched into the hills behind her; a baby buggy—empty or full?—on the Champ-de-Mars, framed by the legs of the Eiffel Tower.

I’m also riffling through a shoe box of old family photos in various formats: rich black and white enlargements; deckle-edged Brownie snapshots; square, fading Instamatics; Polaroids with their varnish cracking. They reveal so much, and so little.

And there’s yet another group of photographs, lovingly assembled into a volume that is bound in cloth, bears a Library of Congress number, and has Ti Fox printed under the title. It’s full of people with whom I share no blood, but the book feels like a family album.

When I’ve gleaned what I can from all the images, I turn to a set of journals, the months of 1988 captured in rough, end-of-the-day ramblings. I’m transported by the details and immediacy of these entries and struck by their rawness.

Finally, a growing stack of letters reminds me that the story I’m writing is not only mine—it touches the tender parts of other people, too. They should have a voice, and they will.

Within easy reach in this attic room, my baby breathes softly in his portable crib. Down a floor, my husband snores and keeps our bed warm. These people, these pictures, these words—they’re telling me how they’re all connected, how they brought me here, why they’re such good company even now. As I listen, I can feel fresh new words forming, words that will take me back to the beginning of the story.

CHAPTER 2

GERRY

Syracuse, New York

1988

WE NAMED TICONDEROGA for a fort and two boats, an Iroquois peninsula, and maybe a pencil. But my practical wife was able to convince me right off the bat that Ticonderoga was an awfully big handle for twenty inches of baby. Ticonderoga became Ti before a month was up.

Ti thanked me not long ago for the brevity and sexual ambiguity of her nickname, an asset in her photographic career. But she also said it was a great comfort to know that the full five syllables were there, being held in reserve, in case she ever needed them.

Fort Ticonderoga has been my obsession since boyhood. Virginia kindly agreed to a honeymoon cottage across Lake Champlain from the fort, and during those ten days in 1945 we ferried over two or three times for inspections, even though I knew the fort’s granite ramparts and artillery by heart. We also took an excursion up the lake on the aging steamboat Ticonderoga. But only Ti’s name was conceived that September.

Shell-shocked after a long, somber engagement that spanned the attack on Pearl Harbor and the dropping of the atomic bombs, we were hesitant to help launch the baby boom. For five years, we carefully navigated the mine-infested waters of newlywed sex and came up with no hits. Then, in 1950, Ticonderoga marched forth, her name fully deployed because of a honeymoon promise, her birthdate just a happy accident.

Pacifist Virginia would roll in her lilac-covered grave to hear me pursuing a military motif, but that was the reality she chose when she fell in love with a guy who was majoring in Early American Military History, who had filled the shelves of his dorm room at Columbia University with phalanxes of lead soldiers representing every war on North American soil, and who was keeping track of the ongoing hostilities overseas with pushpins on a wall-sized world map. I enlisted in 1942 with one more semester to go.

Incredibly, the last assignment of my tour was on the newly commissioned USS Ticonderoga. Virginia and I thought this was a great omen—that I would survive the war, come home to her, and spend many years re-enacting the capture of Fort Ti from the British with my miniature Green Mountain Boys and Redcoats. Not so lucky were 144 of my shipmates, who lost their lives when we were hit by kamikazes off Formosa. But the future I’d reclaimed didn’t turn out at all the way I’d pictured it.

Virginia supplied the graphic and geographic connotations of Ticonderoga’s name. My fiancée spent a fair amount of time pushing around a Ticonderoga #2 pencil while she waited for her Navy lieutenant to complete his tour of duty. Not only did she finish her undergraduate degree in American literature, but she went on to get an MFA in creative writing, both at Barnard. I should add that she did put down her pencil between anti-war poems to help out on the home-front—as a Red Cross volunteer and neighborhood recycler, though the term was unknown then.

I think the geographical reference pleased Virginia the most. As she wrote in Ti’s baby book, Ticonderoga is the Iroquois word for the land between two waters. The poet in her was certainly thinking beyond pure landforms. I know she loved the isolation of islands and peninsulas—they made her feel a little wild, removed from daily concerns. But was she also thinking of the American continent with its Pacific and Atlantic shores?

Ti has done her share of bouncing between those shores and she’s about to make the trip again, on her way to France. As she gears up to cross the Atlantic—the water between two lands—I wish her safe passage and hope she finds what she’s been looking for, in one land or another. March forth, Ti!

When I lost Virginia—I should say, when we lost her, though Ti has no memory of it because she was only six months old—the rug was pulled out from the life I’d carefully planned. Nothing made sense anymore and if it weren’t for my daughter and my hardware store, I’m not sure I would have gotten my bearings again. I’m still getting them now, which is something I need to talk to Ti about.

I did the best I could raising Ti alone, though I’m afraid she might have a skewed idea of what an adult is, based on my hollowed-out and melancholy existence. And what a man is, based on my complete sexlessness. No other woman ever interested me again—they all seemed so silly and shallow compared to Virginia, at least the ones in Alexandria, New York, where Virginia and I had settled and brought Ti into the world.

There were two sets of Alexandria women who came around to the house with some regularity, presumably to check on Ti’s welfare and the state of our housekeeping: the good ladies of the Presbyterian church and the mothers of Ti’s friends. It was, after all, quite a spectacle in the ‘50s for a father to raise a small daughter all by himself. The mothers, all married, flirted with me shamelessly, probably sensing that it was safe on both sides. And the church ladies could be counted on for a steady supply of baked goods and an annual army of spring cleaners, though sometimes they were way too persistent. I had to speak firmly to an overly solicitous widow or two, or the occasional busybody who tried to persuade us of the inappropriateness of Ti calling her father Gerry instead of Daddy.

When Ti began to dress and look more like a woman, the domestic situation that had been cute and brave when she was a little girl apparently became unsavory in the eyes of the community. Whole new battalions of church women descended on us to whisk my teen off to department stores or fashion shows or teas, and according to Ti, they always worked in a motherly chat about boys and dating. That’s when I lost my patience. I stopped going to church, which had been Virginia’s idea in the first place, but I let Ti continue on with the youth choir and teen fellowship group until she got bored with them. We probably aroused all the more suspicion with our lapsing, but our new secular life was a relief to both of us.

In fact, Ti and I were like an old married couple sometimes, with silence interrupted only by gentle bickering. Virginia and I hadn’t had enough years together to reach that state, and of course I fantasize that we never would have. But I wonder what image of married life Ti developed. She witnessed and reported on some parental fireworks at her friends’ houses. Her grandparents were a mixed bag, though my folks were the picture of warmth compared to Virginia’s. The rest of what Ti saw of marriage was on TV: sitcom spouses pecking each other’s cheeks and getting into their twin beds.

What I’m trying to say is that, without any kind of romantic life, I wasn’t a great model of male sexuality for Ti. But she might think a blank slate is a good thing considering what I’m going to be writing on it.

Ti’s never seen this townhouse before. I moved to Syracuse a couple years after she moved to Oregon, to be closer to the second hardware store I’d bought and to live in a bigger town where I wouldn’t stick out like a sore thumb. I guess you’d say in the current jargon that I was interested in exploring alternative lifestyles, and I gravitated to the university area thinking it would be more liberal, more tolerant. But it also felt good to be back in the neighborhood where my two brothers and I had grown up.

I raised Ti in nearby Alexandria, a small town on a lake where Virginia and I had optimistically feathered our nest. I was a resident shopkeeper for the better part of a generation, purveying tools and supplies to dungareed hog farmers, uniformed employees of gated estates, and bloody-knuckled weekend do-it-yourselfers.

It was a strange place, Alexandria. To reference one of the few things I remember from my ancient history class in high school—Alexandria, like Gaul, est divisa in tres partes: the old money by the lake, the outlying farms, and the constant flux of middle class families that came and went on the tails of fathers’ job transfers.

With an unblemished business reputation, I managed to move freely among these spheres. But Ti and I were a nontraditional family long before the term was invented and that made us a little suspect, hard to pin down. Once our church ties were cut, we drifted even farther toward the fringes of Alexandria society. If they only knew just how untethered Gerry Fox has become!

After renting in Syracuse for a number of years and looking in vain for a house to buy, I decided to become my own contractor. I sold both stores and the house in Alexandria and chose a vacant lot on a somewhat sketchy street north of the university, where I built a row of townhouses according to my exacting specifications, moved into one, and turned over the rest. It was hard to tell Ti that we were giving up the house on Algonquin Street, that shrine to not only our eighteen years of family life but to the ghost of Virginia. More Virginia’s taste than my own—I thought the house a bit dark and more France than New York—nevertheless it had structural integrity and was a good fit for the two of us, then the three of us, then the two of us.

Ti was so immersed in her life in Oregon that she took it well. She gave me a short list of childhood possessions to hang onto—her Dr. Seuss, Albert Payson Terhune, and Black Stallion books, her ’45 records, her baby book, her diaries (I didn’t peek!), and her high school term papers—and the deed was done.

I couldn’t bring all the furnishings from the house, but maybe it will be a comfort for Ti to see the old mahogany dining table with her homework scratchings on the surface, the world map with my obsessive pushpin records, Virginia’s Monet print of a French cathedral that was a favorite of Ti’s, and of course my collection of lead soldiers. I’ve added a few new things, too, like the requisite La-Z-Boy for retirees.

Now that Ti has given up her apartment in Oregon and sold most of her own belongings, this bachelor pad is her only official tie to American soil. I hope she doesn’t mind sharing an address, for however long, with a peculiar old guy who’s going strange places himself.

CHAPTER 3

MITCH

Ft. Myers, Florida

1988

I’LL NEVER FORGET the first time Ti held a 35-millimeter camera in her hands. My niece’s early attempts at photography—first with her Brownie, then her Instamatic, even her silly Polaroid Swinger—had been promising. She had a good instinct for composition and I was intrigued by her choice of subject matter. How many kids do you know who find beauty in the bricked-up windows and doors of old industrial buildings or a doll head floating among lily pads?

When Ti came to my studio in the fall of 1967 for her senior portrait, she had a million questions about all the paraphernalia and processes that were second nature to me. I thought she might be ready to try a more sophisticated camera with controls that she could manipulate.

That Thanksgiving at her Nana and Pop’s house in Syracuse, I took Ti aside and offered her my old Kodak Signet rangefinder. It had been my hobby camera when the family was still young but I’d recently upgraded to the Leica of my dreams. The Signet, I thought, would be a good 35mm camera for Ti to learn on.

Oddly, the first thing she did was hold the leather case up to her nose, then look up at me and smile. I love that smell, she said, and I didn’t know if she meant the leather or her uncle’s oils and cologne that had certainly saturated it over the years. She unsnapped the case and gazed at the complicated sliding exposure scales on the back, which made her brow knit. Then she turned it around to the familiar face of the camera—the lens, double viewfinders, and wind/rewind dials that the Fox kids pretended were a snout, eyes, and ears when I was photographing them. Ti looked up at me again with tears in her eyes, and I led her outside into the chilly air.

We sat on the porch swing and I told her about f-stops and shutter speeds and depth of field and film types until she became bored and cold, at which point she jumped up to look through the viewfinder herself, holding the camera to her face and aiming it up into the bare branches of my parents’ elm trees. Pretty! she exclaimed as the branches came into focus, and then she turned the camera and framed them vertically, which she liked even better. The next day we took a photo excursion into the nearby cemetery, and I knew she was hooked.

I mentored Ti for a few years long-distance, and after college she came to work for me as an apprentice in my studio in Rochester, New York. It was a short-lived arrangement, unsatisfactory for both of us. The next year she moved out west and found her niche in photojournalism, shooting for a tribal newspaper, then a city paper, along with a few plum freelance projects. She sent me tear sheets, as well as brochures and annual reports that I proudly trotted out for my clients, my equipment reps, anyone who would look. I cheered her on as best I could, though half the time my letters came back because I’d used an old address. Finally the day came when her book about the LePage Indian Reservation arrived in the mail, and I was speechless. It was handsome, it was assured, it was the work of a mature photographer. Why couldn’t I tell her that?

For whatever indefensible reason, I couldn’t find the words to praise Ti and her accomplishment, and I’m afraid my silence has hurt her feelings. It pains me to think that the man who first gave Ti the tool to express herself has become yet another family conundrum for her. I wish I could see her as she comes through upstate New York, but Margaret and I are now spending our winters in Florida.

The quiet that has descended over Ti and her uncle is completely contrary to our earlier warm relationship. I’m told by my family—my wife and four boys—that Ticonderoga could be counted on to put a twinkle in my eye. In a way, she was the daughter I didn’t have, and I was the mother she didn’t have. It was a natural affinity, a union of temperaments.

My brother was a great father to Ti, but at the best of times Gerry was serene and short on words; in full-grief mode, he was a human island. I’ve always been more thin-skinned, more voluble, so she tended to come to me when something was disturbing or exciting her. When Ti became passionate about photography, as none of my sons ever did, the magic just increased. But at its core, I suspect it was genetic—Ti and I were the only ones in the family to share our matriarch’s olive complexion and mercurial disposition.

I often worried that Gerry would resent my special place in Ti’s life, but he seemed to welcome it. He even sent Ti to live with us for one summer, when she was about ten, saying he needed a breather, by which Margaret and I hoped he meant that there was a woman he was interested in pursuing. But nothing came of it, except that Gerry was visibly more relaxed by the end of the summer. And the boys, especially James, were delighted to have a new playmate.

That was another bond to behold in our family. My eldest and Ti were like peas in a pod, not in appearance but in their shared love of books and solitude. They could exist side-by-side without words for hours, watching the world from a distance, and we had to pry them apart when it was time for bed or home. As adults, James and Ti were both afflicted with strong cases of wanderlust and lost track of each other, even though they’ve occupied the western third of the country for some years now. But I hear she’s going through Boulder, a welcome reaching-out in our rather reserved family.

At mid-century, all three generations of Foxes lived along a hundred-mile stretch of the brand-new New York State Thruway, but the cozy geography and easy access were misleading. Except for the very occasional spontaneous visit, Thanksgiving was the only reliable gathering time for a family that didn’t put much stock in religious holidays and eschewed picnics and Adirondack resorts. Once a year was deemed to be enough to preserve minimal attachments while avoiding the complications of togetherness. And it was my job to provide a running photographic account.

My annual portrait of the assembled Foxes and Masons is about the only record we have. Storytellers we were not. Stories were considered either painful or self-aggrandizing and best left in the old country or in a trunk or in the cemetery. I’ve always regretted not sharing more with our children about who their grandparents were and where they came from, but Gerry and I didn’t know that much ourselves, and we respected our parents’ privacy, to a fault.

The grandkids knew the basic outline: their Nana and Pop—Sadie and Frank— came to America from Germany just after the first world war and started their family not far from Ellis Island, in the Bronx. Frank became a journeyman mechanic for the New York Central Railroad and he took a promotion upstate in Syracuse when Gerry was two and I was a newborn.

Our father ordered an American Foursquare house kit from the 1922 Sears Roebuck Modern Homes catalog and that was where Gerry and I and our younger brother Bob grew up in blissful ignorance of our origins. Sure, we noticed and were embarrassed by our parents’ accents, Sadie’s even thicker with its distinctive cadence and sprinkling of strange words. Gerry was the only one to receive a distinctly German name—Gerhard—but I never heard anybody use it. Mitchell is Hebrew in origin, but so are a million other common names. If you took some untagged Old World rootstock, transplanted it in the New World, and watered it with an elixir that cures immigrants of their pasts—that would be the Fox family tree.

The fruit fell far from Sadie and Frank’s branches, their boys as thoroughly American as their Sears house. For a time we were a foursquare family even in our differences, our father partial to his milder, tool-loving older son, and our mother favoring her moodier, artistic second-born. If pressed, though, I’m sure they would have said that Gerry and I were both the apples of their eyes, and that they should have stopped while they were ahead. But after a seven-year gap, Robert arrived as if from other parents. Every family needs a ne’er-do-well, and Bob was ours, right from his first petty thefts as a toddler, through his first taste of alcohol as a preteen, and on into his many brushes with the law thereafter.

It was a sore point for our father that Bob ended up taking a decades-long free ride on the nation’s railroads. Still, Frank was good for tips about the most hospitable railyards where the bulls were most likely to look the other way.

Bob could have been the one storyteller in the family, except nobody but the grandkids believed a word he said. Uncle Bob rolled into Syracuse every couple of Thanksgivings and put his street-wise stamp on our polite gatherings, regaling the kids with dispatches from the hobo world, tales tinged with deprivation and exotica. When he became unintelligible and sloppily sentimental, Sadie would slug Frank in the arm, her sign to stop mixing drinks, and Bob would pass out on the sofa. In his own unorthodox way, Uncle Bob conferred some authority on his niece and nephews—they were the only kids in their schools who knew what a jungle was, or how to make a stove out of a tin can.

Sometimes Bob made it into the Thanksgiving tableau that arranged itself for my camera, and sometimes he didn’t. But there was one beloved family member who never showed up in the photographs after 1950. That was Virginia, whose absence was palpable but never discussed. We all felt Gerry’s pain, but it was our own loss, too, of a wry and intelligent presence at our table. Ti bravely occupied the chair next to Gerry, unsure what was expected of her as a stand-in, always glancing enviously at the Fox boys at the card table. Virginia’s icy mother joined us every year but she seemed to have been struck dumb by all the sadness in her life. That’s Ti’s story to tell.

The black and white enlargements piled up even while the growing children were leaving the table and disappearing from the camera frame. Then the table itself was loaded into a truck in 1969, when Sadie cajoled the now-retired Frank into leaving Syracuse and moving back to the Bronx, supposedly for lack of a decent butcher in upstate New York. There was never a quorum after that.

The people Ti grew up with were not uncaring. They were just preoccupied and wary. The resulting emotional desert was hardly a fertile breeding ground for Ti, but she brilliantly found a way to engage the world outside her family: with her camera. I’ve wondered if, by photographing reservation families, feasting with them, mourning them, she’s given some thought to Fox family dynamics—what was lacking as well as the ways in which she was well served, or at least not harmed.

But Ti is looking ahead right now, not behind, her sights set on the trip she never took back in her college or post-college days. While most of her contemporaries tramped around Europe, with the obligatory hop across the Mediterranean to Morocco, Ti went in the opposite direction, driving west across the North American continent to another kind of cultural experience. None of us, least of all Gerry, thought she would make such a permanent life for herself in Oregon. Nor, once she had put her roots down, did we expect her to throw it all over, as she seems to be doing now. Ti likes to keep us guessing, but I’m sure some internal logic will be revealed once she completes the next chapter of her life. It will be there in her photographs.

CHAPTER 4

LENNY

Portland, Oregon

1988

IT WAS SUCH A PORTLAND scene: Ti and I kissing in the cold rain, the only warm thing our tears. Not a long, passionate kiss but a lot of quick ones as we tried to disentangle our two lives and let go. If the Rabbit hadn’t been idling, this might have gone on forever. But this was Portland—we didn’t want to foul the air any more than necessary.

We didn’t say much of anything, but if there had been cartoon balloons over our heads, mine might have said Nothing lasts forever, and Ti’s would have been exactly what she’d been saying all week, Am I being a total selfish jerk? No amount of refutation would convince her, and the truth is I wasn’t convinced myself. But she’d had these plans in place for so long that it was ridiculous to consider any other scenario. The looming fact of her departure had colored everything we’d done or said for the past year.

Ti drove twice around my cul-de-sac as we waved madly at each other, then the Rabbit taillights disappeared into the fog. I went back into the quiet house and made myself another cup of coffee. Nathan was already at school, having said his good-byes the night before. I was impressed with his thoughtfulness: he’d given Ti a handmade card with a quote from Thoreau—I must walk toward Oregon, and not toward Europe.—and then his own sentiment: You did it Henry’s way, now do it your way. It’s cool—we get it. The two of them had sat together on the sofa for a long time, their arms around each other.

After Ti left, I took my coffee down to the basement and fired up the little Compaq computer Ti and I had bought together and schlepped back and forth between our places. I popped in the floppy disk that she’d drawn a heart on, and reread the word-processed love messages we’d left for each other over the last two years. I was touched by the earnestness of these private proclamations, even if they didn’t quite ring true anymore. I shut down the computer and the very next day I decommissioned it and bought myself a newer model that takes a different size disc.

In fact, before Ti even reached the Atlantic, I had bought the new computer, a new TV, and a VCR (finally giving in to VHS after being loyal to Beta for years). For the first time I understood a woman’s need to shop when the going gets rough, or when there’s a hole to fill. But neither did I miss the significance of my loading myself down while Ti was setting herself free. At least I was consuming electronics rather than food.

Ti’s last weekend was her big divestiture. She had the mother of all apartment sales and Nathan and I were accessories to what seemed to me like a crime. It was a little sickening to see strangers touching her furniture, her pots and pans, her knick-knacks—even some things I gave her which she asked my permission to sell. I saw Ti reach out a couple of times to grab something back, then stuff her hands in her pockets. I’d suggested while we were pricing things beforehand that she might want to hand-pick heirs for the most meaningful stuff, but she’d brushed me off. Then, as the apartment emptied and our waist packs swelled with cash, we both became ruthless. We let people talk us down to ridiculous prices, tossing things into their arms for free as they left. We even joked about having a ritual bonfire of the leftovers on the vacant lot up her street.

Instead, after the last vultures had flapped away on Sunday, we loaded the remains into the Rabbit for a Goodwill run on Monday. Years’ worth of accumulation was disposed of in days, except for the significant anchor Ti dropped at my house—twenty or so liquor boxes of books, record albums, negative files, and clothes, along with her bicycle, her darkroom equipment, a futon, and a rug. The basics for when—if— she ever comes home. Ti’s pile sits in the basement right next to Caroline’s, monuments to the two women who flaked out on me.

You see, this wasn’t the first time I’d been left. But it was the first voluntary abandonment. Caroline didn’t know she was leaving me when she hacked at her wrists—twice, futilely. Nathan and I decided we couldn’t stand yet another bittersweet homecoming from a hospital, and I arranged for residential treatment, which she thankfully agreed to. I guess I left her, if you want to get technical. But Caroline’d checked out on me years before and this was the final straw. Maybe the penultimate straw, because she’s still my wife and she’s still Nathan’s mother and our lives are still intertwined.

No wonder Ti couldn’t commit to me, couldn’t use the first-person plural and the future tense in the same sentence. I didn’t make it easy for her, or for me.

We never thought our work relationship would blossom into a five-year gig. Ti and I occupied adjoining cubicles at The Portland Paper, the Rose City’s alternative weekly. I was the restaurant critic (until I switched over to gardening a couple of years ago in an effort to lose some weight) and she was the photographer, and our interaction didn’t go much beyond lofting paper airplanes over our common partition—until the Monday we came in and realized we’d both been through the weekends from hell. Mine was the aforementioned decision about Caroline, and hers was a sudden separation from the husband I’d only recently learned she had.

The grapevine at The Paper alerted Ti and me to the lifting of our respective burdens, and we murmured our condolences to each other. Then I took a week off to deal with all the paperwork and emotional turmoil. The Monday I came back, after shy nods of acknowledgment, Ti and I headed to the conference room for an editorial meeting. In our pre-coffee stupor, we tried to walk through the doorway at the same moment, wedging ourselves like two of the Three Stooges, much to the amusement of those already assembled. It was when we pulled back to try again that Ti suddenly gave me the sweetest, saddest smile and I threw my arms open to her. She stepped into a friendly, commiserating hug that seemed to squeeze out all our pent-up pain in one joint sigh. Well, Ti, here we are, I whispered nonsensically because we had no idea where we were—until we were brought back to earth by applause erupting from the conference room.

This was classic Paper style, nothing furtive, everybody involved. And an uncanny nose for what tomorrow’s news was going to be.

We certainly weren’t the first among our passionate staff of misfits to mix work and pleasure. In fact our staff had a reputation around town for liberal lifestyles as well as politics. The Paper was a kind of sanctuary for maladjusted people who not only didn’t fit into traditional journalism but also couldn’t make sense of their personal lives. Ours was not a group who found after-five solace in Elk’s Clubs, churches, or gyms. Having rejected so many social institutions, we were stuck with each other, a veritable lonely hearts club that was yearning for more than professional satisfaction. I wouldn’t call it a sexual free-for-all, because all the liaisons I knew about were heartfelt, agonizing affairs that dragged on way past the initial joyful romp, becoming as complicated as anything at home. But it was enough of an incestuous quagmire to not only spawn Ti’s and my illicit relationship, but to have it be perceived as innocent and wholesome. Which it really was, even though we were both technically married.

Five years later, we were in an ill-defined though still affectionate drift. We’d never moved in together, but we’d seen Ti through her divorce and the publication of her book, and the next thing was always going to be the trip to France. Even before I met her she had that basic outline sketched out. So I don’t know why I’m whining. Maybe for Nathan. Because as Ti and I lapsed into routines and silences, she and Nathan were getting closer.

It took a while. Ti didn’t have much experience with children, and Nathan had zero experience with his dad having a girlfriend. They did pretty well, considering. It helped that Nathan is such an open and accepting kid by nature—though a lifetime of coping with his mother’s schizophrenia has also made him a tad wary about attachments. Maybe he sensed better than I did that Ti would be fluttering out of our lives just as she’d floated in and therefore was not a threat. Or maybe uncertainty was just normal for him. In any case, what Ti and Nathan settled on was less of a mother/son relationship than a big sister/little brother bond.

Nathan’s discovery of the Beatles busted it wide open for them. That and skateboarding, though by her mid-thirties Ti was more observer and instigator than rider. Their mutual admiration for Thoreau sealed the deal.

It drove me crazy sometimes when they traded rock-and-roll trivia over dinner, or came in from kicking a soccer ball around in the yard and pried their sneakers off without untying their fool shoelaces—then left them for me to trip over. Even though there were only twelve years between us, I felt I’d crossed a generational boundary to get to Ti. Not to mention a marital boundary. But Ti’s young heart and Nathan’s old soul made their own two-decade gap easier to span.

Now Nathan is stuck with just his dad again, and together we’ll adjust. Ti can leave me hanging all she wants, but I hope she keeps holding the boy close, wherever she ends up.

DEPARTURE

CHAPTER 5

CARGO

I HAD THREE UNWAVERING childhood dreams: 1) to live on an Indian reservation; 2) to publish a book; and 3) to see Paris. By the winter of 1988 I’d accomplished the first two and was in pursuit of the third. That’s how I ended up on the Snow Chi Minh Trail in Wyoming.

Here’s what they might have written on my roadside cross along I-80 if they’d ever found me in the snowdrifts:

TI FOX

1950-1988

Too young to die,

too old to be driving recklessly

across North America

in mid-winter

I exaggerate my brush with death that February night, but death was apparently on my mind. I was ending my life back in Oregon and thinking about all the other things I’d walked or driven away from. I was bidding the North American continent a slow, bittersweet adieu.

There was an elegiac quality to the beginning of this long-anticipated trip to France. I was a rolling giveaway, a wheeled version of the LePage tribal ritual of handing out Pendleton blankets, bandannas, and necklaces to honor a life passage. But the few objects I was leaving with trusted people were not all gifts. I would be picking some of them up again, someday.

My first stop was the reservation, where I dropped off some photographs I’d framed for display in the makeshift little museum in the general store. There were many LePagers I should have visited, but I found it more calming to just sit for a spell by the wood stove with the regulars, old men in their cowboy hats and old women in their headscarves, who nodded with some interest and no judgment when I told them I was leaving Oregon indefinitely. Then I hurried back to my car, where my cat was waiting.

My whiskered feline friend Ansel would be having his own extended holiday with my whiskered human friend Clarence on forty acres of rangeland outside the off-reservation town of Juniper. Clarence had been Juniper’s postmaster for 25 years before retiring on the land where his family had once grown alfalfa and grazed sheep. I was afraid Ansel would forget me as soon as he discovered the joy of flushing chukars and ground squirrels out of the sagebrush, but at eleven, he was too old to deal with the travel, the required quarantine, and my uncertain circumstances abroad. It broke my heart to leave him, but Clarence assured me, as he lit his pipe on his front porch and squinted at the hills and gullies, that if Ansel survived the coyotes and the occasional leg trap left out for the coyotes, he’d be best off here. Unless, Clarence added, he helps himself to my bed or the kitchen counters—in which case, may the best critter win. He hesitated, his eyes twinkling through the smoke, and added, Maybe I’ll finally get to try out my recipe for cat soup. I cradled Ansel’s big head and kissed that perfect line where the black on the left met the white on the right. I knew he’d be in good hands.

Next was Boise, Idaho, home of a landscape photographer I’d met at a workshop. I’d promised to loan him my medium-format camera —no sense having it sit unused in its chrome case while I was away.

My fourth placeholder consisted of two cartons of recently printed books that gave off the heady smell of ink and would provide good ballast along the Snow Chi Minh Trail. They were to be deposited with my cousin James in Colorado so he could fill any orders that might trickle in while I was gone.

Then there was the camping equipment for friends in Chicago. And the car itself, to be left in Gerry’s garage.

It was almost like I was marking my territory, leaving my scent, telling this huge continent to save a spot for me, somewhere. But I also had some questions to ask of it. Having conducted childhood idylls on one end of the country, grown into adulthood on the other end, and crisscrossed it lovingly a few times in the process, I wondered why I was so ready to leave it. Why didn’t it feel more like home?

It was no wonder, really, after a college curriculum that was one long critique of American culture, followed by a decade on the LePage Reservation, where I couldn’t help but feel at odds with the rest of America. But I suspected there was more to it, something that might explain why I’d hardly looked back after leaving my hometown in the east, why I was now hell-bent on abandoning my home in the west. Maybe on my way to the Old World I would discover something about the New World that would make me want to come back.

One thing I like to do when I’m traveling by car is to eat at cafés where semis are idling outside. I enjoy listening to the truck drivers talk shop and flirt with the waitresses, and I can get some good tips about routes and road conditions. I’ve learned to be careful about the subjects I broach; for instance, truckers can really clam up when asked to decode their light-blinking language. And you don’t want to tell just any trucker that you live on an Indian reservation, unless you enjoy watching a perfectly reasonable person turn into a bigot in seconds flat. On this trip I was having a good time answering Paris to the question Where y’all headed? when I should have been asking about the weather.

It must have been the lure of red rocks glowing in the saturated afternoon light, or the promise of another couple of hours of easy freeway driving before dark, but I left the truck stop in Green River, Wyoming, when I probably should have stayed put. With the sunroof of my VW Rabbit open halfway, I watched silver-edged clouds focusing beams of sunlight onto farmers’ fields, then blackening and pinching off the rays, one by one.

At dusk a gentle snow started falling. I cranked the sunroof closed and then, as if I’d driven through an invisible portal, a strong wind suddenly slammed the Rabbit broadside and blew the snow sideways. The drifts deepened with the darkness and my headlights penetrated mere inches into the dizzying flurries. Even the semis seemed to have been caught unaware, pulling over to the shoulder or sometimes bailing out right in my lane. I thought about chaining up, but I knew if I stopped I’d never get going again and my little car would be buried within an hour. So I kept plowing ahead, my back rigid, my hands vise-gripping the steering wheel, my eyes probing. I’d lost my touch on snow and ice after years in the near-tropics of Oregon’s Willamette Valley, but this white-out would have scared me even when I was a snow-savvy Northeasterner. At least my current VW had front-wheel drive and a decent defroster, unlike the old Squareback that had carried me out west in a more favorable season.

My headlights inexplicably snapped off, and after a bit of panicked fumbling I discovered I still had my high beams—but they were like searchlights illuminating every snowflake but none of the road. The vertigo of blowing snow disoriented me so much I had to turn the lights off altogether to give myself short breaks. For three more terrifying hours I flew blind, almost completely alone in this Siberian steppe of a landscape.

Outside Rawlins the storm eased up, but the few motels in town had their No Vacancy signs lit up, their parking lots full of snow-encased cars. I had no choice but to drive on, still shaking but out of danger. When I rolled into a Motel 6 in Laramie just after ten p.m., it felt like four in the morning. Nothing else was open and I was too tired to eat dinner anyway, so I chewed on some sunflower seeds and raisins and collapsed into bed, shutting out the sterile whiteness of the walls, sheets, and towels. I’d seen enough white for one night.

Before I fell asleep, an image that has always haunted me seemed to materialize as if projected onto the blank wall opposite my bed. It’s a black and white that Uncle Mitch took of our family—the Foxes and Masons—gathered around my mother’s casket before it was lowered into the ground in Alexandria, New York. Mitch’s hands may have been trembling, because it wasn’t his usual quality—too blurry to make out subtleties of hairstyles or facial expressions, which were probably not at their best that day anyway. But it’s surprising how much you can tell from the tilt of a head, the slope of a back.

Seated in front is my father, hunched over his infant cargo, one cheek resting on my dark wisps of hair. Next to him are Virginia’s parents, my Grandmother and Granddad Mason, thin and perfectly erect in their folding chairs, their hands folded in their laps, Granddad’s face turned toward Grandmother, who stares resolutely into the camera. Behind Gerry are his parents, Nana and Pop Fox, softer and wider than the Masons, each with a hand on their son’s shoulder, their other arms intertwined. To one side of them is Mitch’s pretty wife Margaret with a baby in her arms and toddler James by the hand. On the other side, surprisingly because he was often not in the picture, is the third Fox brother, Bob. He’s not smiling, so the missing teeth aren’t showing—or maybe they hadn’t started rotting yet. I don’t know why Mitch didn’t use his self-timer and come around to join this somber collection of Foxes and Masons. Yes, I do know. Behind the camera was where he felt most comfortable. It’s the same for me.

My mother died, imprisoned in an iron lung, when I was not quite six months old. Obviously I have no memory of her, having had no meaningful contact with her after being weaned at three months when her polio was diagnosed.

I also have no memory of our canary or our cat, but that hasn’t prevented me from using them as comic relief in my public rendering of the sad events of that summer of 1950. It all started with the canary... was once my standard opening line. And even though the three deaths were not technically related—the canary died of fright and the cat, perhaps in a bit of canary karma, was run over by a car—they spoke loudly of a string of bad luck in our household.

Such flippancy, as you might guess, was a way of keeping pity at bay, of sealing my sorrow into a little coffin-shaped box engraved with the words, This is not a coffin. So Dada.

Virginia, according to my father, was the first one in Alexandria Lake when the park officially opened for swimming that Memorial Day weekend. She swam all the way out to the small island where teenagers sometimes trysted, and by the time she got back, the roped-off swimming area was teeming with children. She splashed with them for a while, until, presumably, her breasts tingled and told her it was time for my feeding. Gerry took a snapshot of her nursing me on the beach that day, my hungry mouth hidden discreetly under a towel, Virginia’s face and skin glowing. She was intent on getting back in shape after her pregnancy and was tired of being cooped up in the house, Gerry said. There was no stopping her.

The virus took care of that. I always wanted to know which one of those splashing kids was responsible, but there were no other reports of polio in our town that summer. Whoever had carried the disease may have experienced only a few aches and pains and a sore throat, the parents blissfully unaware of their child’s close call. But the virus burrowed into my mother, who slept all day that Monday and woke up Tuesday unable to move her legs. Gerry carried her into a hospital in Syracuse and she never came home again. She died there on August 15, 1950.

I used to ask Gerry why my mother hadn’t been buried next to Twerp and Gatsby under the lilac in our yard, since their deaths seemed to be all of a piece. Gerry said it was against the law, that she had to be buried in a cemetery with other people. Alexandria’s cemetery was one of my favorite places to ride bikes, and I regularly eavesdropped on strangers’ graveside services, but I always gave Virginia’s plot a wide berth. When I was about ten, Gerry got permission to plant a lilac next to her headstone and asked me to help. The next time I visited, just before leaving Alexandria for college, I was happy to see that the lilac had completely overtaken the stone.

Virginia couldn’t be confined to a grave. She was everywhere—bigger than life or death. We only had a few photos of her, but one of my favorites was the wedding picture where Virginia and Gerry are ducking under crossed swords, he in his crisp white Navy uniform and she in her sleek, rented gown. Both of them were Hollywood-good-looking with their suntans and dazzling smiles, and I imagined a clutch of press photographers popping flashbulbs at the new couple, as if they’d been Bogart and Bacall.

I was sure she’d been a movie star. Even her married name—Virginia Fox—had star quality. Why else would her brother-in-law Mitchell have made the glamorous black and white portraits I now have in my possession? As a child, I would study her studio-lit features on those silky 8x10s—the strong, slender nose, the pretty points that her cheeks made when she smiled, the dark-red lips that registered black—and I’d marvel at such perfection. Sometimes as a teenager, I would hold up one of the photos and look at both our faces in the mirror to see where I fell short. By then, of course, Virginia’s dark lipstick and pin curls were looking mighty quaint, but, ah, that heart-shaped face! And those eyes—not dreamy and moist like a ‘40s vamp, but clear, bright, intelligent, a bit mocking. Mitch’s place in my heart was secured by the very fact of these pictures; not only that he had commemorated my mother in this way, but that he had been gazed on fondly by such beauty. The photographer of stars is often a star himself by association.

The next morning was sparkly and still, but my head throbbed from the bright sun and the tension of the night before. I cleared six inches of new snow off the Rabbit, knocked down grimy ice blocks wedged between the tires and the mud flaps, and poured hot water onto the frozen door locks. But when I tried to start the car, I got only a click. While the motel manager kindly summoned AAA, I crossed the parking lot and ordered the biggest breakfast I could find among the color photos on the oversized menu. An hour later I was picking my teeth in the motel office, still waiting for the tow truck, when I saw a rack of totally white postcards inscribed I-80, Wyoming’s Snow Chi Minh Trail. What wag had come up with that nickname, and why didn’t the state have the decency to print it on their maps as a warning? When I paid for one of the cards, the manager offered me an I Survived the Snow Chi Minh Trail sweatshirt for 50% off. Not much call for these, he said, deadpan. Wyoming was full of wags.

I was on the road again before noon with a freshly charged car battery and a new appreciation for what the storm had wrought: marshmallow-coated fences, overburdened trees, long shadows sprawling across glittering snow. I pulled over several times for photographs, leaving the engine running so I wouldn’t be stranded in the midst of such fickle beauty. At the Colorado border, the pavement on Interstate 25 turned suddenly dry and I skimmed south toward Boulder, grateful for my cousin James’s promise of a warm bed and an appointment with his mechanic. I was a little shy about seeing James after so many years, but I knew we’d have lots to talk about besides the weather.

CHAPTER 6

CUL-DE-SACS

I THOUGHT THE STATE Department had sent me the wrong passport. Looking out at me through lamination tough enough to last ten years was a gaunt bird of a woman with bleary eyes and a tousled aura of hair. It was the kind of face you’d expect to see in a sunny day room, bobbing gently with the rhythm of a rocking chair.

The silver hair no longer surprised me when I caught my image in store windows or mirrors. It had started in my late twenties around the temples, inexorably circling my head like a shimmering war bonnet by the time I was 35. I was accustomed to being a minor public spectacle, people doing double-takes and trying to reconcile the hoary head with a face that was still relatively smooth. But what I saw in the passport picture was my face catching up with my hair.

Maybe a little rest would do the trick. Forget the trip to France, Ti. Snug the afghan up to your neck, fix everyone with a wary look, and let the sun slowly drip its energy into you. Scenes from a Sanitarium—a great second book!

But I’d barely survived the first book. None of the publishing guides I’d read had adequately prepared me for the numbing fatigue of endless self-promotion, from selling an idea to hawking the finished product, which I was doing half-heartedly on this cross-country trip.

I’d brought it on myself, of course. Certainly the LePage people hadn’t been clamoring for a photographic portrait revealing their cultural details and family intimacies. But this body of work had accumulated while I’d been covering daily life on the reservation, and who was I to lock it away unseen in the tribal newspaper filing cabinets? OK, I admit it wasn’t all altruism—my #2 dream of publishing had reared its head.

The day Images of LePage came back from the bindery, all official and done up in its glossy white dust jacket, I was simultaneously in awe and mortified. I could barely get past the cover image of old Emily Wahneta leaning on her rootdigging stick and looking beyond me sadly, as if to say, Do you have to do this? I flipped through the book with unseeing eyes, pushed it aside, and didn’t touch it again for days. I was alienated from it, as if I’d given birth to a monster I couldn’t bear to look at. Even when I was able to turn the pages again, it was never with a clear eye—I saw either a masterpiece or junk, never anything between.

And in this frame of mind, I had to convince the public to buy a nearly textless collection of black and white photographs of a little-known reservation, a hard sell for anyone. I’d chosen a small fine-arts press with virtually no marketing department, so it was mostly up to me. Already worn thin by the thousands of daily decisions about photo cropping, typeface, paper stock, duotone ink color, binding, cover design, etc., I entered the publicity fray as an empty shell. A basically private person would never happily volunteer for such over-exposure, but I gritted my teeth for the bookstore signings, slide lectures, and infrequent but nerve-wracking interviews, and they just about did me in.

It was performance art, feigning confidence and pride in something that had fallen out of focus for me. All that spurred me on was the LePagers’ unanticipated affection for the book—it was for them that I wanted to get the book into people’s hands. When sales tapered to nothing after an initial surge, and the press seemed perfectly happy to keep the books boxed up in its warehouse, the tribal government and I agreed to buy out the remaining 500 copies and split them between us, for peddling on our own. I suspect we both gave away more books than we sold.

Meanwhile, the people inside Images were literally disappearing. Old age, car wrecks, diabetes, and an accidental shooting had claimed a dozen of my subjects—some of them friends—before the book had ever gone to press. I realized painfully that not even a book could preserve the people I’d spent a third of my life with. I was tired of

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