Why I Write: Class Pictures
I have wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember. Here is one of the reasons why:
Back in 2001 when my mother was dying of lung cancer, I traveled down to her home in Florida to chat and start sorting things out and making sure things were in order (she subsequently passed away in 2002). Mom has lived alone since she and Dad divorced back in the 1980s. On my last day there, Mom and I spent the morning talking about what I was supposed to do with everything once she was gone. I was the executor of her will so she wanted me to be sure to know where "all the bodies are buried."
She pulled out boxes that she had carefully prepared for each of us children. There are three of us in my family: my oldest sister Pat, middle sister Pam, and me, baby Richard. Each box contained old mementoes and memories from our childhood. Stuff that each of us had cast aside years ago as insignificant yet Mom had somehow kept and was now giving back to us. Imagine suddenly being confronted with almost every homework assignment you’d ever done or every card or present you’d ever given your mother. That’s what was in these boxes.
I open up my box to see what it could possibly hold. The envelope on top grabs my attention right away. I recognize it because I'd been thinking about that very same envelope for decades and wondering where it could be.
The day after I left on this trip was my young son Ben's first picture day at his elementary school. When I'd left home, he had infections in both of his ears and my wife Betsy was driving him to the doctor but Ben was bound and determined that, no matter how he felt, he was going to be at his first school picture day the next morning. Ben was in Young 5's then (the 21st century equivalent of our old kindergarten). His eagerness to get his picture immortalized made me recall my own first kindergarten picture day and the class portrait we'd taken at the time. And I knew that was the picture inside the envelope I now held in my hands.
I opened the manila envelope and pulled out the baby blue folder. I flipped it open. And there we were: the kindergarten class of Harrington Elementary School, 1967-68. There were all our fresh faces surrounding our teacher Mrs. Seward as we began our first foray into public education and life outside our homes. I located myself at the end of the upper left hand row and smiled to realize there was more than a little Ben in my features (even though I know it was vice versa).
I have lots of memories from kindergarten: coloring, show and tell, and the field trip to a local farm to see a young horse that had just been born. The day we had a cookout in the classroom and sat around eating beans and singing cowboy songs like we were out on the range.
Staring at that class photo in my hand, I searched for a particular child. I did not remember her name but I remembered her face. And there she was in the lower right hand corner of the photo. She's almost as far away from me as you can get in the class grouping, but I've never forgotten her. To my knowledge, we never had a conversation. I am somewhat surprised to see that she is wearing a red and white checked gingham dress. That was the exact same color and pattern of my favorite stuffed animal Puppy who I spent many a night sleeping with in my childhood (and who still carefully rests in the head board of my present bed).
I find the girl's name: Jennie Emmons. Yes, that was her name all right. My family moved away after my kindergarten year so I never saw any of these children again. Yet I never forgot Jennie.
A few weeks after this picture was taken, Jennie's mother was in a car accident coming home from the grocery store and Jennie Emmons died. Richard, the wide-eyed little boy in the upper left of the picture, has gone on to experience most of the highs and lows of life. He's had some of his fondest dreams come true and some of them dashed. Jennie Emmons never got out of Kindergarten. As I stared at the photo, I was now an adult with gray hair and a son who himself was now five years old. Jennie Emmons is forever a young five.
Jennie Emmons is one of the reasons why I am a writer today. Every day, people wander in and out of our lives. A lot of times they are soon gone for no good reason. But they linger in my mind and often transform into fictional characters and stories that work their way down my arm, out of the tips of my fingers, and onto the page. They are part of how I remember and keep them alive. At heart, these fictional creations have their origin in real life people and places that I have known. And yet I feel the deepest, most profound necessity to put them down on paper and pass them on to you.
It has nothing to do with fame. It has nothing to with money. It has everything to do with preserving today and yesterday for those still here and those yet to come. It is a commitment I keep for the Jennie Emmons of the world.
Why do YOU write? Please share.
7/8/2013 02:18:07 am
I loved this writing, Rich. With all the years that have passed for me, I too have searched for my 1-4 classmates at Waterford School near Goshen. We left for Stone Lake that summer and after a year at Scott, off to Ohio.
12/14/2020 10:36:59 pm
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