Wednesday, January 24, 2018
Five Dots and a Squiggle
When I was a kid, growing up in the New York metropolitan area, there was a series of three or four children's programs that aired during weekday afternoons. Perhaps strategically scheduled to captivate that generation's latchkey children as a public service to their blue-collar parents, the shows were each a blend of cartoons and live personalities.
Though I do remember the names of some of the show hosts—hey, one of them was my brother who, of course, I would know—the one actor I don't remember happens to be the one whose simple on-air challenge forever captivated my imagination.
The star of the show—whoever he was—had a simple proposition. It was something like this: send me five dots and a line and tell me what you want me to draw. I'll produce the results in five minutes or less.
It was connect-the-dots on live camera. Each week, this intrepid artist would open one piece of fan mail, read the letter aloud, have the camera zoom in on the sketch of the five dots and the crazy line, and produce the requested drawing. Sometimes, it was a simple order, like "draw me a pony" or "make a clown." Sometimes, the letter sought a more complicated creation.
Most of the time, the desired object was drawn to specifications within the allotted time, but every once in a while, the contestant stumped the star, resulting in the award of a special prize.
While I've long forgotten who that man was—thus leaving me forever wondering what he did for a living after the show no longer aired—I've always prized the challenge to pull something out of chaos and transform it into recognizable permanence.
Let's just say I've taken on that orphaned photograph challenge as my five-dots-and-a-squiggle.
So far, with the help of my good friends at A Family Tapestry, I've managed to transform three first names and a blue-ribbon-winning West Highland Terrier into a Christmas photograph album that found its way from northern California to County Cork, Ireland. A memorial photograph of a man struck by a train one hundred ten years ago in Kansas to a granddaughter in southern California who had never met him. And a century-old photo of a successful young couple in Kentucky to an appreciative family historian now in Minnesota.
All of these photographs I found in an antique shop near my home in the Central Valley of northern California, a city once considered a jumping-off place for Gold Rush speculators from all over the world—and, later, a refuge from the ravages of the Dust Bowl for farmers devastated in the region around Oklahoma, Kansas and northern Texas.
I've now moved to a new resource for found photographs: up to the northern California foothills, the very settlements where the gold was actually found. Those who stayed there—or, perhaps, wised up to the fact that they'd likely fare better by doing businesses with the ones seeking treasure in those hills—had relatives all across the country, not to mention the world, who could only keep in touch by writing letters and sending photographs.
Now, those captured faces stare out from hundred year old photographs to strangers at antique shops. Gone are the people who once cherished these mementos. Gone, in fact, are the grandchildren of some of those recipients.
Estate sales can be unkind venues for pictures once sent with that tacit "remember me" sentiment. They become, for all intents, faces forgotten by everyone. But for the names—and sometimes even dates and locations—they would be forsaken by me, as well. Fortunately, those few elements are transformed into the family history equivalent of five-dots-and-a-squiggle, and I take on the challenge and buy them.
One photograph—not quite as old as the others I found—caught my attention despite the rather plain composition of what surely is three sisters, backs up to the outside wall of what looks like a shack. The littlest girl—clearly years younger than the two who flanked her sides—has a big white bow in her hair. Perhaps it was she who, years later, sent the photograph to another relative. Whoever it was who took the time to label the picture was chatty enough to include the memory, "Seems like I always had the stomach ache."
Sure enough, with her sisters towering over her, this little one is forever captured on film with her hands holding her belly.
Thankfully, she also remembered to include the names of all three of the girls. We'll take a closer look at them during the rest of the week.