«Just My Writing»

It didn’t always work this way, there was a time you had to get your hands dirty. When you were in the dark, for most of it fumbling was a given. If you needed more contrast, more saturation darker-darks and brighter-brights they called it “extended development”, it meant you spent longer inhaling chemicals , longer up to your wrists, it wasn’t always easy. Grandpa Stewart was a navy photographer, young, red-faced with the sleeves rolled up, fists of fingers like fat rolls of coins he looked like Popeye the sailorman come to life. Crooked smile, tuft of chest hair, he showed to up to world war two with a smirk and a hobby. When they asked him if he knew much about photography, he lied. Learned to read Europe like a map, upside down from the height of a fighter plane. Camera snapping, eyelids flapping, the darkest-darks and brightest-brights, he learned war like he could read his way home. When other men returned they put their weapons out to rust, but he brought the lenses and the cameras home with him. Opened the shop, turned it into a family affair. My father was born into this world of black and white. His basketball hands learned the tiny clicks and slides of lens into frame, film into camera, chemical into plastic bin. His father knew the equipment, but not the art. He knew the darks but not the brights, my father learned the magic. Spent his time following light. Once he travelled across the country to follow a forest fire, hunted it with his camera for a week. Follow the light he said, follow the light. There are parts of me I only recognize in photographs. The loft in Wooster street with creaky hallways, the twelve foot ceiling, white walls and cold floors, this was my mother’s home. Before she was mother, before she was wife, she was artist. And the only two rooms in the house with the walls that reached all the way up to the ceiling and doors that opened and closed, were the bathroom and the darkroom. The darkroom she built herself with custom made stainless steel sinks, an eight by ten bed enlarger that moved up and down by a giant hand crank, a bank of coloured bounce lights, a white glass wall for viewing prints, a drying rack that moved in and out from the wall. My mother built herself a darkroom. Made it her home. Fell in love with a man with basketball hands with the way he looked at light. They got married had a baby, moved to a house near a park but they kept the loft in Wooster street for birthday parties and treasure hunts.

The baby tipped the grey scale. Filled their her parents photo albums with red balloons and yellow icing . The baby grew into a girl without freckles, with a crooked smile that didn’t understand why her friends did not have darkrooms in their houses, who never saw her parents kiss, who never saw then hold hands. But one day another baby showed up, this one with perfect straight hair and bubble-gum cheeks they named him sweet-potato and when he laughed he laughed so loudly he scared the pigeons on the fire escape. And the four of them lived in that house near the park, the girl with no freckles the sweet-potato boy the basketball father and darkroom mother, and they lit their candles and said their prayers, and the corners of the photographs curled.

One day some towers fell. And the house near the park became the house under ash so they escaped in backpacks on bicycles to darkroom, but the loft on Wooster street was built for an artist not a family of pigeons; and walls that do not reach the ceiling, do not hold in the yelling. And the man with basketball hands, put his weapons out to rust. He could not fight this war and no maps pointed home. His hands no longer fit his camera, no longer fit his wife’s, no longer fit his body. The sweet-potato boy mashed his fists into his mouth until he had nothing more to say, so the girl without freckles went treasure hunting on her own. And on Wooster street, in the building with the creaky hallways and the loft with the twelve foot ceiling and the darkroom with too many sinks, under the coloured balanced light she saw a note tacked to the wall with a thumb tack, leftover from a time before towers, from a time before babies; and the note said:

“ A guy sure loves a girl who works in the darkroom”

It was a year before my father picked up a camera again. His first time out he followed the Christmas lights dotting their way through New York City’s trees, tiny dots of light blinking out at him from out of the darkest darks. A year later he travelled across the country to follow a forest fire. Stayed for a week hunting it with his camera, it was ravaging the west coast, eating eighteen-wheeler trucks in its stride. On the other side of the country I went to class and wrote a poem in the margins of my notebook. We had both learned the art of capture. Maybe we are learning the art if embracing, maybe we are learning the art of letting go.

© Sarah Kay

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