The Middle Distance 8.31.12: Toy Camera

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Photo by Sean Cayton

For a blessed few years when I was a little girl in the 1960s, I left home once a week to spend the night at my grandfather’s farm, just across a shaky bridge and a river from town. On Saturdays, Grandaddy and Mammaw pulled up to our house on East 18th Street in Bowling Green, Kentucky, in their rusted baby blue station wagon, and drove us to the country.

My grandfather was a quiet, jolly man with thick arms my brother could do pull-ups on. He grew a little tobacco, kept a few pigs, and turned over a few acres of beans and corn most years. My grandmother, a quiet woman with long, silky hair coiled into a cinnamon roll bun on the back of her head, kept a kitchen garden alongside the front porch and cared for the chickens. Grandaddy cured hams and homemade sausage in the dirt-floored smoke house, a little shack built into a hillside that could blind you with its darkness if you let the heavy door shut when you were inside.

There was plenty to do at their house. We climbed the ladder to the loft of the barn from where we chucked dried corncobs at the hogs down below. We picked beans and tomatoes and strawberries from Mammaw’s garden in the summer. In the fall, we rode in a wagon behind Grandaddy’s tractor across fields littered with limestone and helped him burn the plant bed. My brother brought his friends from town and wandered the woods hunting arrowheads.

The farm didn’t bring in much money, so Grandaddy had a second job that distinguished him in our eyes from all other grandfathers. On weekday mornings, when we were at school, he loaded the back of his station wagon with boxes, drove to small grocery stores out in the country at the intersections of county highways, and stocked twirling metal toy racks with trinkets and novelties packaged in clear plastic bags.

Each time we came over, we waited for the moment when Grandaddy would walk across the yard to the garage, pull out his keys, unlock and pull back the door, and let each of us pick a toy from one of his boxes. My little sister picked out something pink and pretty — a tiny, hard plastic baby doll in a basket; costume bracelets and earrings; magic baby bottles with disappearing milk. My other sister fed her fantasy of being a lawman, choosing a tin sheriff’s badge, a small silver cap pistol with red rolls of sulfur-smelling caps, or toy handcuffs with a ring of skeleton keys. Our brother picked bags of plastic cowboys and Indians armed with rifles and tomahawks, a plastic wallet with a pile of fake green money, or an aluminum spring-action knife that retracted when it was stabbed into someone’s soft belly.

Choosing was staggering. I loved Chinese finger traps, woven in a criss-cross pattern of bendable straw fiber. I loved the flat wooden box that could make nickels disappear. I treasured red cellophane fortuneteller fishes that curled and flopped in the palm of my hand. I adored fake cigarettes, not the candy ones but delicate white paper cylinders tipped with red aluminum foil and filled with powder. I mimicked my mother and father, lipping the tip and softly exhaling instead of inhaling to release a small puff of smoke.

One day, when the weather was changing and the leaves were turning and I was getting a little too old for the usual trinkets, I found a toy camera in Grandaddy’s box. The package promised one perfect picture. I set off alone to the attic above the farmhouse living room to read the instructions in silence. The process required a light source, so I set the little box in the window, facing the trees that towered over Mammaw’s garden. The camera had to be perfectly still, the shutter open exactly to the count of fifty. I pushed the button and counted. The dust in the attic floated silently and outside, the sun pierced the treetops. Finally, I took the camera out of the window and sat on the attic stairs to open it and retrieve the one perfect picture from its back.

I stared at the smeared image, gray and ghostly, with no distinguishable shapes, and felt a crying lump rise in my throat. My sisters chased each other through the house below, snapping metal toy clickers shaped like beetles and ladybugs. I lay the gray paper and the plastic camera on the step and ran downstairs to play before the sun went down.

Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.


5 Responses to The Middle Distance 8/31/12: Toy Camera

  1. kathleen fox collins says:

    As I neared the end of today’s KCE essay…. I felt a crying lump rise in my throat as well…. I will long remember this story….

  2. hannah says:

    I also have wonderful memories of visiting my grandmother’s house. We would often do baking together. She told me that she put a dab of vanilla behind her ears like perfume. Someone, Grandma’s life of “making” seemed more fun than my mother’s life of shopping.

  3. Ellen Troyer says:

    Beautiful memoir example of childhood disappointment and recovery. Thanks again for reminding so many of us of shared experiences that, more often than not, bring tears to our eyes as this one did today. Love, love, love your Friday column.

  4. sarah says:

    My Granpa drowned when I was 5. Before that I have a short list of beautiful memories of him taking me out in his fishing boat, and giving me whisky out of a flask when I said I felt sick, or carrying me from the boat to the house. If I want to taste a memory of him, I eat a Fry’s chocolate cream bar, which was his favourite. Thank you for this story Kathryn, because listening to your beautiful story, made me think of mine and that is always a joy.

  5. kathryn says:

    Sarah: That photo is a treasure. Your little hand on his large one. Beautiful.


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