Oct/Nov 2015 Nonfiction

These, My Women

by Jascha Kessler

Photograph by Jascha Kessler

Photograph by Jascha Kessler

I was startled the other day when this image appeared on my desktop screen, selected at random from a library of old photographs. I took that picture around 1:00 PM of a Sunday, up at Mt. Sinai Cemetery in Los Angeles on September 5, 2008. Reading from left to right, there was Julia, my wife of 58 years, our daughter Margot Lucia, her daughter Juno Rose, and Juno's older sister Zoë Heloïse. They were reciting Kaddish, memorial prayers for the dead, on our customary yearly visit to the grave of Hermina Braun, Julia's mother, who was buried there 35 years earlier, as may be reckoned from the date on the plaque in the foreground. Plangent, poignant, as can be imagined, the familiar moment reduced me to tears, perhaps in sorrow, perhaps overcome by a profound nostalgia, the pathos of our final human experience, and its mourning the loss that cannot be redeemed.

And yet the scene is not dramatic. It is reminiscent in a familiar way because it resembles mutatis mutandis and in real life the sort of family group painted by some French Impressionist, not as to its subject but for its suspended stillness, its untoward tranquility. And beyond my perhaps arbitrary association, it evokes an emotion painful to regard for all the pastoral quality of that moment and the beauty of those women of three generations. There is none of the platitude of grief, the posturing of the religious, the false and deplorable sentimentality one often finds in representations of memorial communion with our dead. One sees calm marchers to an altar on Roman sarcophagi, graceful and solemn, even older mourners on Greek and Etruscan vases. But those are art's abstraction and generalization, the representation of the respect and honor due the dead; they are society's gestures, in short, belonging to all and no one in particular. We glance at them; we read their symbolic import; we pass on.

It is otherwise with this image my computer presented at random to me, returning as if to remind me of an hour forgotten even that very afternoon, purged by the imperative we all have: to get on with our lives, or as the French phrase resolves it for us, faute de mieux. How to speak of it?

In the first place, it may well be, and I believe it is, that were those persons males, a man and his boys, and even were I female, I don't think it would be so affecting, let alone presenting so graceful and lovely in and of itself. In the second place, I must admit my heavy emotion may well be evoked because these creatures are mine, and I am regarding them as were they otherworldly spirits able to perfuse my very being. They are not; they lived on after that day to breathe and go about the business of living... except that my wife, so physically there in that photograph, absorbed in reading from the prayer pamphlet, is buried today two rows above the grave of her mother—she's been gone for three years now. Gone but not forgotten, a phrase that brings me a smile, because when we lived one summer in Taos, New Mexico, in 1961, we happened upon a local cemetery, quite ancient and dilapidated, with crude headstones scattered about in neglect, all of which had carved on them those words and nothing more: GONE BUT NOT FORGOTTEN. We laughed then; it seemed so very simplemindedly the inarticulacy of peasant Mexicans, remote from eloquence, as indeed it is with most of the inscriptions here in Los Angeles at Mt. Sinai, which commonly state, "Beloved... mother, or father, grandmother, brother, sister... beloved whatever and whoever." Just as destitute of language intending to speak of that individual's former qualities in life as we read once on those decaying gravesite crosses.

It may be that the invention of photography is something both wonderful and devastating inasmuch as it preserves the image of what no longer exists, an image of another being who was and yet was not part of our very self. And in this case, which has brought me to these commonplace reflections, it is particularly rending because the image of my women is not a formal portrait, as are most images people frame and keep on display of those who once were family. The picture above is subtly devastating in its sheer informality: the women there are not posing with smiles for me, an observer with his camera, but utterly modestly and casually unselfconscious for a few moments of solemnity, not worship, not prayer, not really anything "important." They are not going somewhere or doing something or "acting" for an audience; nothing of the quotidian images of people at work or play. I'm rather tempted to say I can almost see there a luminous glory that is an aspect of the holy, but that would be pretentious. This image nonetheless disarms me, though it may not a reader who views it.

And though I was husband to the woman, father to her daughter, and grandfather to her daughters, I am in tears because I know who they were at that moment. As for what they were and are and may come to be, I know them not at all, or not as I knew them on seeing them recorded there and then. Indeed, my first impression of that scene was that it is like what some of those French painters were getting at: the sheer beauty of women depicted in ordinary moments, not as studio models to paint or mold. In this instance, those four of my women, as I think of them, offer a nonce collocation of three generations of one family. I hear now in my thought Keats's line: "A thing of beauty is a joy forever." Keats puts it absolutely. Perhaps it captures the hour of that photograph well.


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