Saturday, December 10, 2005

Installment 1: A series of Unlikely Vignettes

Installment One: A Series of Unlikely Vignettes

What follows here is first in a series of installments which, when complete, will be the entirety of the thesis I wrote for an MFA in Photo and Film at Virginia Commonwealth University. The title of the thesis (think of it instead as a hefty magazine article and it could possibly be tolerable) is Posthumous- which was also the title of the exhibit that I had at the end of grad school- it is pages and pages long and was required in order to complete the degree. Fear not, an exhaustive description of Posthumous is down the road, but first, there has to be some background. This first installment is titled "A Series of Unlikely Vignettes" and it relates... well you'll see what it relates...

Disclaimer: Remember that this is the result of two years of grad school (there is a perverse thrill to "publishing" my thesis as a Blog). Sorry too for any weird glitches that resulted from copying and pasting.

I grew up in Marlton, Marlton is a suburb of Upper Marlboro, Maryland. Upper Marlboro, Maryland is a suburb of Washington, D.C.

For the first 18 years of my life I lived less than 10 miles from Thacker Caskets Inc. Thacker Caskets Inc. is located on Alexander Ferry Road in Clinton, Maryland, and I passed the business a few times a week as the road is one of only three ways out of Marlton.

I moved to Richmond after having lived for 10 years in Frostburg, Maryland. As excited as I was, to be in an environment that looked (and felt) like the one I had been raised in, it also felt like a sort of homecoming to find that Thacker Caskets Inc. has a manufacturing plant on Marshall Street in Carver.

During the seventh grade in Mrs. LaFaive's Social Studies class, we were required to take a standardized, projected-career-placement test. I answered the 100 plus questions and when the results were returned the final week, it was suggested -based on the bubbles I had darkened with my number 2 pencil- that the careers which best suited my personality were: undertaker, truck driver and mailman.

During my Pop's funeral my mother -whom I did not recognize that day because she was both younger and older than I had ever seen her- fainted while a tenor sang Ave Maria.

Marlton is only 9 miles from Clinton, MD where the Mary Surratt House Museum is located on Brandywine Road. Mary Surratt, a coconspirator with John Wilkes Booth in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, was the first woman to be executed by the United States Government. Often when family would visit from out-of-town we would tour the museum. Among the artifacts on display was a vitrine containing two photographs taken by Alexander Gardner before and after Surratt's execution. The first photograph shows she and the three others indicted in Lincoln's execution just prior to the release of the gallows' trap door. The second shows the four bodies hanging while the crowd disperses.

Every Sunday I call my Nana and we talk on the phone. When my Pop was still alive they'd joke about jumping off the balcony of their 6th floor apartment in Alexandria, Virginia. Now that my Pop has been dead for almost two years, Nana, at 92, still occasionally jokes around about jumping, but more often than not, her talk of dying is more serious. I think that I am the only person that my grandparents ever spoke to this way.

Living just a short drive from Washington DC, on weekends, my family would often visit the National Zoo. My favorite animals to visit were the seals- I could view them from above or below the water's surface- they were often active, and they were always black and shiny. Along the perimeter of their pen was a fence, along the fence were plaques, and on the plaques were color pictures warning of the dangers of throwing pennies into the water the seals swam in. The pictures showed the hot-pink stomach of an autopsied seal full of shiny, bright pennies.

When I was 17, one of my childhood best friends died in a 42-car pile up on a California freeway. In order for his family to have his casket open during his wake, his face had to be reconstructed. His nose looked like putty and when, through tears I looked at him, all I could think was how he did not look like the pictures that I had of him.

In 1986 I was in the 8th grade- Middle School- and was in the midst of what were (hopefully) the most awful years of my life. Had I been a girl, I could have been the luckless geek Dawn Weiner in Todd Solodnz' Welcome to the Dollhouse. On January 28 my science teacher wheeled a television into the classroom, and turned off the fluorescents so that we could watch the Space Shuttle Challenger lift off from Cape Canaveral, FL. On board the Challenger was an astronaut named Christa McAuliffe; a Social Studies teacher from Concord High School in Concord, New Hampshire, McAuliffe was to be the first civilian to go into outer space. Her inclusion in the mission was swathed in a media frenzy praising NASA and the Reagan administration's decision to allow someone so ordinary to do something so extraordinary. 73 seconds after take off, while looking at the screen and thinking how amazing the exhaust from the Shuttle engines looked against the blue sky, the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded. A week after the explosion, I heard this joke:

Q: Did you know that Christa McAuliffe had dandruff?
A: They found her Head and Shoulders.

During the two years that I attended Catholic school, whenever a siren was heard we were required to pray for the safety of those for whom the siren wailed.

In 1971 my father bought nine of the seventeen volumes of Time Life Books Life Library of Photography. I perused the clothbound, silver and black books for years looking at pictures of places that were proof of a life other than the one I knew, and searching for prurient content for masturbating. One volume, titled The Art of Photography featured Adam and Eve, a sequence of images by Duane Michals that
showed a transparent man approaching, and eventually touching, the breast of a sleeping, nude woman. A few pages away, was another sequence by Michals:
Death Comes to the Old Lady.

For four months I was my Pop's primary caregiver while my Nana recovered from an operation for adhesions in her small intestine. I spent long days with him sitting in his off-white bedroom while he would hold my hand and tell me how badly he wanted to die. Whenever I visited my Pop before he died I always told him that if he felt like it was time to go that he should do so, and not feel guilty. I would say that 94 years was a long time, and that everyone would understand. Before leaving his room, I would lean down and he would hold my face and kiss me at least six times as I pressed my face against his.

On April 5, 2005 I buried my 12 year-old dog Annabelle in my parents' backyard in Marlton. She had been paralyzed from a fall down their stairs, and when the veterinarian administered the lethal injection I held her. I timed my breathing with hers, smelled her fur, told her I loved her, and felt her body change. I think I can still feel the sensation of her lungs deflating- of her entire body going slack. Her funeral was the first at which I was finally able to take pictures.

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