In the weeks of my unemployment, as my prospects grew dim, I took long meandering walks through the city. The walking cleared my head and helped to take my mind off the failure I had become. I walked and my life of dead-end career paths that wound up with a layoff or a pile of bills on an old oak end table, handed down through three generations of a strong-willed family who fought and scratched out lives of happiness, faded. I followed the telephone wires down to the river, where the wires split the sky and then disappeared, leaving rolling water and fading light sky. Along the water I watched the birds circle and swoop. Martins at evening work and caws of crows calling their children home. Dusk turned to night and lights in houses on the Canadian side of the river flickered on. Houses with windows like eyes on the far shore. Families gathering around dining room tables or laid out before televisions. I gathered myself up, tucked myself in, and walked home to the hum of the refrigerator and click of the furnace. On one such night, beneath piling clouds, I came across an elderly woman dressed in a three- quarter sleeve baseball shirt that read “Jesus saves,” and in smaller script just below it . . . “and Wayne Gretzky gets the rebound, he shoots, he scores!” She had an old Kodak Brownie camera strapped around her neck and was staring out across the river. She was a feeble thing. Stick legs. Wrinkled skin. She smiled and her smile was like the warmth of sunlight on an autumn day.
“Good evening,” she smiled.
“The light tonight is lovely. Would you mind very much if I took your picture?”
“My picture?” I started.
“Yes. Say yes. The light is just right.”
She picked up her camera. I looked down to the ground, unsure of myself there. She photographed me in that spot against the river with the day ending and the lights from the winter-battered houses on the Canadian side just coming on. A flock of birds spread out behind me.
In the weeks that followed we met on occasion. She was an amateur ornithologist and amateur photographer. She dressed in thrift-store clothes. She lived on a short, bright street not far from the river and invited me over for tea. Her house was a stack of books and developed photographs. Ceramic birds perched on every available space. Brilliant colors of blue jays and cardinals. Sparrows in flight. Finches and orioles. The photographs were family members in other states, faded images of brothers and sisters now dead. A picture of her parents in front of the Falls. I asked to see some photographs of her but she said there were none. The few photographs of her as a child were lost in a flood. Then family moved away and photographic moments became few. The photographs of those photographs were in her head. She insisted that I see the photograph she took of me. She dug around and found a leather book and opened it to a page with a little square photograph of me. The Niagara River rushing by behind with the lights and the birds. The composition of it was perfect and it seemed to really capture me. My hair hanging down, my shirt tail sticking out. Disheveled. My failure personified but there was a grace to it, a sort of loving hope. The color of the thing. A brilliant red against my blue shirt. The house lights in the distance glowed orange like stars. The birds against high thin clouds. She commented that it was the most beautiful picture she has ever taken. She took it out and gave it to me. I thanked her and it occurred to me then, that the photograph was the first portrait I’d had taken since I was a child. She told me a story about George Eastman. The man who made photographs possible for people with no photographic skills. The point and shooters. The tourists. The man who brought the Brownie camera to the people. She told me how there were possibly less than a dozen known photographs of him. How sad that this man who had given us this beautiful gift was hardly photographed.
“Photographs are like books, they get passed on and down generations. They get lost and found. They live one hundred years!”
We drank our tea and I pulled the photograph she took of me out and we admired it there as the light left the room. As everything started towards shadows, she stood up and turned on a lamp.
My amateur ornithologist became my best friend. We would sit by the river and watch the birds. We said hello to people passing by. To couples holding hands, homeless, and children on bicycles. We met the strangest people and she called them all strange birds.
“Such strange birds we are.” She would say over and over. “Such strange birds.”
She took photographs of hand-painted signs. Lost dog posters. She photographed a pair of shoes on a rock by the river as though they had been stepped out of before plunging into the river. She must have photographed the sky a thousand times. She called them all “crayon blue” and gave some to me. I framed them in pieces of wood I picked from the garbage and cut.
My amateur ornithologist taught me how to use the Kodak Brownie. I photographed telephone wires and how they split the sky. There was something that appealed to me about how they divided it up into neat little squares and rectangles and triangles. She admired them greatly and took them and put them in a little leather book, titled Happiness.
The last time I saw her, I visited her at home, with news of a job. “Things are looking up,” she smiled and smiled. She gave me her Brownie camera as a gift and asked me to photograph her. She was sitting in a red chair with the stuffing picked out of the arms, exposing the wood. She was dressed in an old Niagara Falls t-shirt and the dark red wallpaper on the wall directly behind her was crumbling, peeling off in great strips. There was a shaft of light from the window that lit her face in a square. Bindings of books piled near the chair with a yellow ceramic canary on top. She sat upright. I clicked and captured her there. A sparrow chirped on the windowsill. It walked up the sill and back down chirping and flew off. She called out after it—“such strange birds!”—and smiled and smiled.
I have the photograph in a neat leather album, titled Family.
[Forever after at http://eyeshot.net/birds.html]
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