Friday, February 18, 2011

Inside The Three-Inch Frame

Patti’s post on Wednesday, and her call to write what you can see through a one-inch frame about your childhood, led me to a photograph of myself. It’s an old Brownie camera photo, about three inches by three inches, but it’s a good, tight frame. And it’s filled with details.

In my nonfiction book, The Hinge of Your History: The Phases of Faith, I wrote about the fact that our lives have hinge points at which everything changes. For Sarah in the Old Testament, living a life where everyone saw her as a childless old maid, the hinge was the miraculous birth of Isaac.

For me, one of those significant changes occurred at the point of this photograph. Take a tour of this photo with me.

The setting is Northeast Elementary School in Farmington, New Mexico, at the height of the natural gas boom in the early 1960’s. My parents moved there and bought a peach orchard, clearing enough trees to form “Rose’s Trailer Spaces” on Schofield Lane to accommodate the floods of people who moved there from “back east” in trailers (most of them eight feet wide, thirty or forty feet long) with their many children. We children played “gas station” and “fort” in the abandoned chicken farm coops next door. To this day, chicken manure has a good, “right” smell to me.

In the background of the picture is a little person who is not impressed with what is happening with me. What would I have noticed about that girl? See how cute, how little-girl, her shoes are? See what I’m wearing—brown oxfords, because I had weak ankles and couldn’t wear regular shoes until I was a teenager.

The woman in the picture is Marie McCarty. She was my second-grade teacher who announced that someone was having a city-wide contest for students to write about fire prevention. I took the announcement home, and in a very uncharacteristic spasm of interest, my father helped me walk through the house and write about an escape plan, should our second-hand salmon-and-silver-colored trailer catch on fire in the peach orchard.

The essay won second prize, not first. The second-grader who won first prize for our age group wrote a poem. I immediately concluded that poetry was better than prose. I confess, I still think so.

My hair is blonde and curled. I really, really, really wanted straight black hair like an Indian maiden. (I also begged my parents to drop me off at the Navajo Reservation and let me live in a hogan.) To get those curls, I had slept all night in tiny pink curlers that looked like perforated baby fingers split down the middle, with straps that kept them in place. (Before we got the creepy fancy curlers, my mom used rags.)

I’m wearing what was at that time called a squaw dress. It was pale pink with copper and black braid on it. My mother made one for herself and this one for me. I remember her muttering curses at the sewing machine as she sewed, one eye shut because she had eye problems, wearing a gigantic unyielding brown back brace the size and shape of a washerwoman’s basket.

Mrs. McCarty is giving me a certificate and a five-dollar bill for winning second prize. I am very proud. One of my classmates called me “moneybags.” You could get money for writing? Who knew?

But none of these details are as formative of me as a writer, as another detail you can’t see. Notice how my skirt poofs out? In those days, all little girls wore these stiff, tiered, scratchy net slips. They printed tiny hexagon shapes into your thighs if you sat very long. You endured them, but they could never be allowed to peek from your hem or one of your friends would come up to you, wide-eyed and alarmed and tell you in a harsh whisper, “It’s snowing down south!”

I had several slips. When I wasn’t wearing them, they hung on the back of the door of my bedroom, where I slept on the bottom bunk and my brother on the top.

I was not yet aware that I was extremely nearsighted. When we had the stand-in-line-read-the-charts vision tests at school, I always got in the back of the line and memorized what the other kids said, because I knew not being able to see was a moral failure of some sort, because my dad got mad the first time I brought home a note saying I needed glasses.

So at night, I would lie in bed and try not to look at those fluffy slips which took shapes and menaced me. I was convinced sometimes that George Washington was looking at me with disapproval. Other times the pastel layers would blow in a breeze and make changing, reaching landscapes where I couldn’t hope to get a foothold and might slip into its depths and never be found again.

I was ashamed because I couldn’t see, and ashamed that I could.

Every night I slept at the far edge of the bed, my back against the trailer wall, with all my dolls at my feet and a space in the bed for Jesus who I’d heard never had a place to lay His head.

Every night, I fought a battle with the terrors and the unknowns of my own imagination.

The battle never stopped. Every day, fifty years later as I write, I do the same.


Charmaine Clancy said...

There's a lot crammed into a three inch frame. Love the reference to rags for the hair. I have curly hair (so no rollers) but had to curl my daughter's straight hair for a dance recital, so, I used rags. She thought I was nuts.

Sandra Stiles said...

I wanted straight hair as well. I remember those curlers. On Wednesday nights we took them in a baggie to church and left them in the car to roll our hair on the way home. I used to used rags on my daughter's hair because it was so thick and the rags worked best. From your description of your dress, including oxfords, to the homemade dresses, I could so easily identify with you. It brought back a lot of memories. Now I need to find my old pictures and take a walk down memory lane and see what they say about me.

Elisabeth Grace Foley said...

That's such a neat picture, and it's amazing all the memories packed into it! I love your dress. I have straight hair too, and I've never yet found a successful method for making it curl and stay curled. A curling iron is only a temporary fix. :)

Susie Finkbeiner said...

Thank you for mentioning the "terrors of imagination". You just made me feel like I'm not alone. I was always afraid of this or that as a child. I thought I might be crazy. But then learned that my imagination just took over sometimes.

Nicole said...

So much in there, Latayne. Touching. The place for Jesus speaks of His love for children. I asked Him to walk out of my little closet when I was a child. Yet I never met Him until I was thirty . . .

Thank you for this. Your mom could really sew.

Wendy Paine Miller said...

A picture really can tell a thousand words--beautifully captured words. I love the way you write.

And I was just looking at a photograph of me and my three sisters at a castle in England (not our home of course) thinking how many stories could branch out of that one photo.

Thanks for sharing your gift today.
~ Wendy

sally said...

What a wonderful story!

Anonymous said...

What vivid memories you have, Latayne. And what a special thing it is to have a major turning point in your young life captured on film. That's priceless.

Anonymous said...

And wow, yes, your mom really could sew! I have curly hair, which I still hate. My 2 older brothers and 2 younger sisters have perfectly straight hair. Just not fair. So from junior high on, I used large cans to roll my hair every night, then changed to the really large curlers when they finally came out with them in boxes of hair straighteners you could buy. But my little sister is 9 years younger than me, so when I was in high school I used to curl her long hair in rags. I thought it was the coolest thing that you could do that.

Ellen Staley said...

Memory lane. My intellectual father was a minister's son and very strict. No curlers allowed though my grandmother would sometimes play with us and put her ouchy wire ones in our hair. But they always pulled hair out.
One year, my sisters and I wore specially made linen dresses for Easter made by my grandmother's friend, a seamstress. My sisters looked cute in theirs. I looked knobby kneed and like a stretched toothpick.
My fathered wanted us to wear oxford styles because he felt them healthier for our feet. I remember black and white saddle shoes, and Buster Brown oxfords. I was in seventh grade before I wore a more contemporary style.
Oddly, though my father was raised in church, I don't member much focus on Jesus in our house. I was in my early twenties when I called out in His name to remove an unwanted visitor from my room (this scene is in my wip), yet I did not invite Him into my heart for another ten years.

Marian said...

I love the way you did that. Admitted, you had a great picture to start (Norman Rockwell material). Your words painted a classic Norman Rockwell in my mind.

Patti Hill said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Latayne C Scott said...

Dear everybody. I am so deeply encouraged to see comments from some of you I've not heard from before. Thank you so much.

Also -- a big thank you to Patti, because it was her lesson on the one-inch frame that motivated me to write this!

Wendy Lawton said...

What a rich experience to take a guided tour in a three-ince frame. I know this was an exercise in detail but it is so much more. . . Thank you for this, Latayne.

Megan Sayer said...

Latayne THANK YOU!!!!!!!!!
I feel like you've just given the most rich and wondrous gift here! There's so much in this story - seeds for a hundred novels. I'm rereading it and smiling all over again.

The space in your bed for Jesus is absolutely priceless, too. When I was eight I imagined Heaven like the view from an aeroplane window, but with God presiding over the litter of our "souls", which to me looked like the discarded torsos of dressmakers dummies. Boring.

I wore shoes like yours too, although to tell you the truth when I first saw the photo I felt a pang of envy at your beautiful hair and dress. My mother was a very practical woman parenting in the "women can do anything men can do now" era of the '70s, and all I wanted for years were long hair and pretty dresses.

Megan Sayer said...

sorry Latayne, I know, I'm an excitable person. It doesn't make me any less sincere though : )

Kathleen Popa said...

Latayne, you amaze me. What exquisite writing, and what images! Thank you for this.

Latayne C Scott said...

I was thinking about the commonality that a common experience creates: those of us who have traversed life from rags in our hair to plastic curlers to those brush-filled things to Donald Duck orange juice cans to blow dryers to (in some cases) just letting that stubborn hair have its way. That's what I read in what Charmaine, Sandra, Elisabeth, Ellen and Sharon said. What power the evocation of the images from the word "curler" can bring!

Sally, you are always so supportive of our efforts here. Thank you!

Sharon and Katy, I will love you forever, dear sisters.

Susie and Nicole and Megan and Wendy and Marian (and the previously-mentioned ones too) brought up something that is so true -- our secret collisions with Jesus in our childhoods that bore fruit later. I just love Him for that. He's like the picture on the milk carton you stared at when you were a child and then suddenly, He's right there! He's three-dimensional -- no, He's infinitely dimensional, and He's looking right into your eyes!