The Jamesons

I first discovered the photo a year ago, in a trunk in New Mexico when I was visiting my dad for Christmas. It was with hundreds of other photographs—snapshots and portraits and cabinet cards and even daguerrotypes—in a collection I had never seen before, though they were family pictures. I took a stash of the photos back to Chicago with me last December, but this picture stayed behind, and it was only last month that I saw it again when my dad brought it. You can click on it to look closer.

These are the Jamesons. They are my mother’s paternal family, my great-great-grandparents, Ammie and Joe Lee; the boy in the hat is Malcolm, my great-grandfather. The girl at the end is Vida, his sister. They are on the San Antonio River and it is 1893.

In 1893 they are in San Antonio because Joe Lee is the bookkeeper and steward at the Southwest Texas Insane Asylum. They live there, actually, on the asylum grounds in an apartment in the administration building. Other staff members live there, too, including, in 1896, the  superintendent, a Dr. MacGregor and his wife, who will be my other great-grandparents.

Later the Jamesons will move to Austin so that Joe Lee can work in the Capitol as the State Revenue Agent of Texas. Curiously, he will endorse a popular line of adding machines and his name will appear in hundreds of turn-of-the-century magazine advertisements that will come up in a search on Google Books. Thanks to scanned ephemera, his name lives on in a way he hadn’t planned.

In Austin the Jamesons will live in a big house that they do not own, a tall, narrow mansion with ceilings so high that when Vida, age five, leans too far over the stairway banister, she will fall nineteen feet. Somehow she will survive the accident, but die a year and a half later, in 1900, from meningitis. I will find yellowed newspaper clippings, an account of the governor’s wife draping ropes of violets over her casket.

I will at first wonder why Joe Lee left his government job to work for an oil company in Beaumont, Texas, until I figure out the connection to Spindletop, an astonishing geyser of oil that bursts out of the ground in 1901 and begins the modern oil industry. To pursue the opportunity, the family moves to Beaumont, to an address that Google Street View shows as an empty lot now. The address came from newspaper clippings, too, reporting Joe Lee’s death, from typhoid fever, in 1904, at the age of thirty-four.

Joe Lee is buried back in Austin, in a plot with Vida and Ammie, who died much later. This spring I saw their graves and the place where the big house stood across from the Capitol. In a city where I’d never been, in the weedy grass of a cemetery, there were the stones of these people who sort of (for lack of a better word) belonged to me.

This is the story so far. I keep trying (and, I think, failing) to express what it’s like to put together the pieces these people left. For no reason, really, except that the pieces are there, the scrapbooks and the photos and, sometimes, a detail that I remember hearing from my mother or or someone else. There are other pictures, of course, but this one really stays with me. I’m sure part of it is the nature of the photo—posed not as a portrait, but as a moment.  It makes me feel like I’m encountering them in a dream.

I think about how they stopped in the river to take the picture, to look across the water toward the bank, at all of us here on shore.

A life more ordinary

Last night Chris and I watched a Netflixed DVD of the 1980 film Ordinary People. I’ve been on something of a mission to find and watch movies that I watched repeatedly on cable during my childhood, movies that imprinted on me for whatever reason. Sometimes it’s a movie like The Fish that Saved Pittsburgh, where you feel compelled to simply confirm that yes, there really was a disco sports movie about a basketball team that harnessed the power of astrology to win the championship (also they rode in a sparkly hot air balloon). And sometimes it’s a movie like Ordinary People, which is one of those dysfunctional-families-of-the-80s award-winning things. As a kid it fascinated me because it was set on the North Shore of the Chicago area and portrayed an affluent lifestyle that I both resented and envied. Somehow I couldn’t get enough of the Ordinary People family, with their golf games and Nordic sweaters and their many, many psychodramatic tics.

Donald Sutherland plays the most sensitive and kindhearted tax lawyer ever in the history of the North Shore, and he lives in a big white house with his wife, Mary Tyler Moore, and his son, Timothy Hutton. Mary Tyler Moore puts silver napkin rings on napkins and lines them up just so in the buffet drawer, which is how you know she’s an asshole. Timothy Hutton has a bad haircut that he gave himself in the mental hospital and he spends the first half hour or so looking (and kind of acting) like he’s been punched in the face. They’re all trying get past the boating-accident-death of the oldest son, “Buck,” who appears in flashbacks as the only one in the family who isn’t brittle and awkward. Timothy Hutton is so guilt-wracked as the surviving brother that he attempted suicide, and now he’s trying to get his life back together and date a very young, baby-faced Elizabeth McGovern. Judd Hirsch is his outpatient therapist; he smokes and swears and wears ribbed cardigans and has a dingy shitburger office. I know it sounds like I’m making fun of this movie, but it’s honestly good. You can laugh at the on-the-nose portrayals of classic dysfunction even as you admire the performances.

I am kind of sad Mary Tyler Moore didn’t spin off this role into a TV show called Brittle, Privileged Mother, where every week a guest star tries and fails to emotionally connect with her. It would be a sitcom, because apparently I am at an age where I find that premise hilarious.

But I also find myself remembering my younger self when I watch this movie, and how I gazed at the autumnal landscape of Lake Forest and the preppy outfits and the tidy homes. Much of the setting resembled Oak Park, where I grew up, but with the patrician affluence cranked up an extra few notches. The Ordinary People family didn’t resemble mine at all, but whenever I saw the movie I liked to imagine I was looking into my future, when would wear tartan skirts to choir practice and come home to a beautiful and oppressive household and run upstairs to my room in anguish. I liked to think that by watching I was getting ready for all that.

I am not terribly disappointed that my life turned out differently. Except, I guess, for the part where Judd Hirsch was supposed to be my therapist.

We won’t go until we get some, we won’t go until we get some

It is coming slowly, the Christmas feeling. I think having this overseas trip wedged in the first weekend of the month didn’t help. We had to put up our tree right after Thanksgiving, when I am not quite on board yet with the Christmas, and then the usual process of letting the holiday sparkles crystallize throughout my brain was interrupted by the travel. And truly, nothing kills Christmas cheer like airport holiday decor—all those big dull plastic ornaments and industrial-strength swags of greenery and lights. Nothing should twinkle at O’Hare, ever. Efficient blinking only, please, so everyone can get wherever the hell they’re going.

I thought my spirit would improve once we were in England, since as far as I’m concerned, that is where all the Christmas comes from—all the ancient traditions and the greenery and the Dickens. And most of the songs, except for the German hymns and that one by Mariah Carey.  It’s just the essence: London is to Christmas as Vegas is to Liberace. And yet as I looked at the lights decorating Regent Street and Covent Garden and Somerset House, I felt only the slightest twinge; I could tell that my Christmas receptors weren’t really humming yet. Maybe it was the low-level exhaustion, or the low-level anxiety, or maybe I was trying to reconcile everything with the olde gas-lit cobblestoned Christmas London in my head. I don’t know. But somehow it’s lovely now as I remember it and look back at the photos.

I think the Christmasy feeling has something to do with an altered experience of time and space. To drive down a street at night with all the houses lit up feels a bit like your life has cracked open; you were just going home but then suddenly the world is all Candy Cane Lane crazy, and you’re okay with it. The windows of your days fog up and everything becomes a benevolent blur for awhile. On my commute home last night, finally, I could feel it starting to happen—the night slowing down and beginning to glow a certain way, burning over my memory with the merry little Christmas now.


Then I was back in it

I thought it would suck going straight back to work the morning after flying back from London, but after a few days of wandering around a strange city with an open agenda, it’s remarkably comforting to return to the contours your own life. As a non-resident demi-tourist (in the sense that I didn’t do much of the obviously touristy things like visit the palaces or go Madame Tussaud’s or stare at Big Ben), it was hard to find a place in the rhythm of the city, whereas the morning commute Tuesday morning here at home was as simple as sliding down a chute, if not as fun. I drove along Lincoln and Cicero and Touhy thinking, look at my country! O condos and motels and hulking electronics stores! Then I was back in it.

When our flight came in on Monday night, the little TV in the cab from O’Hare flashed the headline that Kate Middleton was pregnant, and I wondered how on earth I could’ve missed THAT news on my last day in London. And so my usual end-of-vacation remorse was infused with bonus regret that in all my scurrying around in the drizzling rain between Tube stops Monday morning, I totally neglected to spot the screaming 72-point newspaper headlines bearing this Monumental English News, or notice all the people on street corners waving around Union Jack onesies in triumph, or overhear one of the Cockney chimney sweeps from Mary Poppins saying, “Wot? The Duchess is up the duff?” and thus I had utterly failed in my quest to experience London with open eyes. But then my cousin told me that the Kate news broke late afternoon, just as my plane was taking off, so I felt vindicated. Plus a little peeved that the British Airways captain didn’t announce the pregnancy along with the fasten-seat-belts bit. Safety, schmafety!

I’m not sure whether I can blame jetlag for the fact that I went to bed at 8:30 last night, since I wasn’t in the UK for very long. But the last couple of days haven’t quite felt like full days (much less Holidailydaysies). I go to work and come home and then an avalanche of sleep falls on top of me and I dig myself out at around 5 am the next day. Hopefully this will stop soon.

I leave you with this photo of some guy rocking out in the Tube. I’m pretty sure he had no idea about Kate Middleton either.


There is no such thing as a “Holidaily” when you’re crossing the Prime Meridian, suckas

You know how it is when you’ve been traveling for seventeen hours and the first thing you want to do when you get home is burn your clothes? I just spent about nine hours on a trans-Atlantic flight going westbound and time lost all meaning but my socks somewhow still accrued filth. I saw two full movies on the plane and three others that always appeared to be just starting. And then getting to the plane in the first place involved a seemingly endless series of trains. Chris came straight from Bristol, so his trains followed a perfect Zeno’s Paradox succession—first the long train from Bristol to Paddington, then a shorter train to Heathrow, then one to the terminal, then oneto the gate. And then when we got to the gate, there were little amusement-park-choo-choo tracks going down the jetway to the plane. Okay, maybe not. But we wouldn’t have been surprised ONE BIT if we’d had to get on one of those little railroad hand-carts in order to make our flight, because travel can be batshit crazy like that.

I’d write more, but my brain still feels like this photo:

I mean all my synapses are like lurchy red buses in rush-hour traffic. I think I need to sleep. Good night!

From across the pond

So I’m in London, or now outside London, on a train that just left Paddington Station, and it’s Saturday, though when I post it it’ll be Sunday, or maybe still Saturday, what with the time zone and my complete inability to figure out this WordPress phone app. There are these gorgeous green velvet swaths of countryside (my mind is screaming ENGLISH COUNTRYSIDE! ) out my window. Sometimes it looks like Wisconsin and sometimes it looks like a movie, and sometimes the transformation takes place in front of you like a passing cloud.


The train is to Bristol, where I’ll meet Chris. Yesterday I took the Tube into central London with my cousin and while she was at work I walked around the city in that sort of travel-daze that you get when your level of curiosity about a place is disproportionate to the amount of actual working knowledge you have about it. And also totally disproportionate to the amount of sleep you’ve gotten. So you wander from block to block (and by “you” I mean “I,” though traveling can make one feel so disconnected that it hardly matters) seeing one gray ancient fascinating wedding-cake of a building after another and each time you think is that something I should see? Each time you try to get behind the moment. I went into the British Museum and saw the Rosetta Stone, and marble statues, and a bog man, who was really nothing more than a leathery crumpled heap. Then I left and walked some more. Traveling in a strange city is like being in a dream where the nightmare elements are just barely kept at bay—little wisps of fear and disorientation that don’t show up in the snapshots.

The memories of this trip aren’t here yet. I’m typing on a crowded train where I had to argue with another passenger to get my proper seat and there is a girl in the vestibule crying on a cell phone and the landscape is a blur. Wish you were here.