postcard-from-l-a: A relic unearthed: the black-and-white holiday family photo

Columnist Chris Erskine's family gathered at the Thanksgiving table in the early 1960s. He's the boy on the left.
Columnist Chris Erskine’s family gathered at the Thanksgiving table in the early 1960s. He’s the boy on the left.
(From Chris Erskine)

This photo stays in my head like yesterday’s brandy. My cousin’s wife found it, scanned it and emailed it to me and my siblings around the country. The Thanksgiving still life. An heirloom, really. Like a scene from Samuel Beckett, where nothing much happens, yet everything does.

That’s me, the young idiot on the left, ready to slide under the table. Next to me, on the far left, my mom. As wardens go, she looks fairly benign, with a smile that could outshine the sun. But you didn’t cross her. She had a French temper and didn’t fret over smacking a disrespectful kid. On the other hand, she had the sort of heehaw laugh that could change the migration patterns of geese. Not exactly a womanly chuckle. More of a big womanly roar.

Could be any holiday, really, but I’m pretty sure it was Thanksgiving, ‘round about 1963 or ’64. You can almost smell the turkey musk or the wool mittens drying on the radiator. East of the Rockies, it always seemed to rain on Thanksgiving weekend. Too warm to snow. Too cold to play outside. Sleet snaking down the windowpanes.

Maybe only writers and other depressives — classical composers, mimes — like this time of year. But I’ve always loved November skies — the way the clouds turn into long, gray blankets, the candy-apple sunsets, the brush-stroked dawns.


That’s my grandma, my mother’s mother, at the far end of the table. To my left, my sister. Across from her is the family squirrel, squirming in our father’s lap.

Next to my father, the ne’er-do-well uncle (my mom’s brother). My family didn’t invent black sheep, we just bred them, in herds. Purdue, the story goes, threw my uncle out after only one day. Top that, you callow frat boys.

Later, as a Navy pilot, my uncle survived a slide over the edge of an aircraft carrier and into the drink. Always into the drink. Handsome and cocksure, he was the kind of man who could fix anything but himself.

Love this little black-and-white snapshot and have been studying it for a few days now. The photo captures forever the sort of moment you appreciate as a father, knowing that few men ever look forward to a formal holiday feast. They’d rather be telling fishing stories in the den, or huddled like cave men around the TV, yelling at some quarterback. Yet, here they are. Showing up. So much of fatherhood is just showing up.


“We are not saints, but we have kept our appointment,” Beckett wrote. “How many people can boast as much?”

Presumably, this photo was taken by my grandfather just before dinner, for the plates are stacked at the end of the table awaiting the food. Note the wallpaper. Whatever happened to wallpaper?

I remember my grandparents’ house, the way it creaked like an ark during winter storms. It was the house where my mother grew up, a rambling old cathedral with three floors. There were mice in the attic and coal dust in the cellar.

Like most grandparents’ houses back then, it smelled of pipe smoke, candle wax and a hundred holidays. You baste enough turkeys and the scent eventually burrows into the woodwork and the walls.


As we head into the holidays, zapping a zillion photos, I wonder how many of them will surface 50 years later like this one did, outliving most of the people in it. Back then, no one had heard the words “pixel” or “Photoshop.” There was no hi-res or low-res, thumb-drives or Facebook friends. If you had a friend, you had to actually talk to him.

And when you finished a roll of film — film came in rolls, like crazy-expensive toilet paper — you printed out everything, then stuffed it into scrapbooks and desk drawers, an odd and stupid system but one that somehow worked. Like ashes in an urn, no one much messed with them.

As with families, these photo-fossils survive. They remind us that families falter but are rarely finished. There may be bad moments, challenges, moral decay, deceit, tough love, belly laughs, hissy fits, spit-takes, boozy fights, gossip and grudges that never go away. But there are no final acts.

Indeed, family members come and go, but bloodlines manage to endure. Like little snapshots in a drawer, awaiting their resurrections.


twitter: @erskinetimes