writing and Photography
I can’t say it had been a great day. A good one, yes, but it had included an exploding rear window on the rental car and a lot of fairly bland miles to go along with a couple of keeper images from an old Army fort near Port Townsend. At any rate, Robert and I had reached that halcyon moment near the end of the day where we pull a chair from the motel room out onto the walkway, pour a couple of stiff ones (which no matter how stiff never seem to come out even and must be periodically amended), light up a stogie and recall our meanderings, past adventures, and other stories that we’ve told a hundred times before. Encouraged by that fair amber lubricant from the wee island nation, tales that never fail to draw guffaws and admiration from the audience of one at just the right places.
We sat facing the side street that dead-ended 50 yards to our right at a bluff overlooking the village of Port Angeles and it’s expansive waterfront. In the distance, barely discernible, lay the rugged coastline of the province of British Columbia. Occasionally, a pedestrian would stroll by toward the observation deck and the zigzagging steps that transversed the cliffside down to the sidewalks below.
We have found ourselves to grow friendlier and friendlier as our ritual proceeds during these sweet evening hours, and we engaged in jovial conversation with the grandmother staying in the room next door, who was enjoying a visit with her local daughter and numerous skittering offspring. After a while another mother walked slowly by, pushing her youngest in a stroller, her other three toddlers criss-crossing in front and back of the ambling procession. The kids were surprisingly quiet, almost subdued. I decided I would work my dependable charm on the tribe and rose to go enliven their world. As I neared the quintet, they froze in place and stared weakly at me in a sort of docile surrender to whatever I was about to do. I smiled and chatted out stereotypical banalities as I glanced from face to face. Still no bounce back, no upturning mouth corners. Except the mother, who smiled slightly, but almost in that manner of deference and meekness that you see in old pictures of slaves and their masters. My charm wasn’t doing its job, so I took a half-dozen photographs and wished them well.
Early the next morning, I was on my way to the free breakfast in the lobby and ran into the grandmother from next door. We started chatting about her grand babies and daughter and I mentioned the other family. What she told me stopped me in my tracks. She had learned that the mother and her children were homeless and were staying in a shelter on the east end of Main Street for a few days until their allotted time was up. And, what’s more, there were four more children in the clan.
In an instant, yesterday’s experience came rushing back, freshly refocused through this updated lens. No wonder the kids were stone faced. Even at their unfledged stage, the endless procession of unanchored days was precluding any childness and draping in its place a mantle of gloom. The mother’s languid expression and posture of the evening before now seemed in retrospect to emanate weariness, numbness, resignation. Years of this brand of life had drained
away any vigor, any vitality she might have once had. She was completely at the mercy of others. Indentured to strangers, moving from largesse to largesse. Her burden more than almost any mother with a husband, support system, and modern resources could manage, but for her? Impossible. My goodness, what went through her mind each day as she gathered or dispersed her brood? Sane, “normal” people, like me, right?, would pose the obvious “why?”. Why did you keep having kids? Maybe they were newly homeless, but the signs pointed to a longer-running situation. And what comes next? What does the concept of a future even mean to someone just hoping to finish today in a safe place, with enough to eat? What happens to these children? How have they managed to stay together this long? Have they ever been in a schoolroom? Played with other children? Slept in the same bed for more than a few days? Treasured their own toys, purchased new just for them, hugged their own doll? Is this life shaping them inexorably to being suited for nothing but more of the same?
And what was I supposed to do, anything? Nothing? Just drive away, shaking my head and acknowledging again how blessed I am, how privileged a life I lead? “There, but for the grace of God…” and all that? Knowing that I would spend this new day however I wanted, choose from any number to appealing items on the menu at all three meals, enjoy again the daily ritual at dusk, and sleep in a room freshly cleaned and prepared for a paying guest, followed by another day filled with that same set of choices, choices reserved for citizens of preferred ethnicity, social category, and sufficient resources?
I have far fewer answers than I have questions, and some of those carry a measure of guilt I can’t seem to totally shake. I have no new revelations, just an emotional jumble of gratitude, sorrow, and hope. Yes, gratitude that I’m not there. Sorrow that they are. And hope for those children, hope against hope that at least one of them escapes and begins to bend the curve, to rewrite her story, to show herself and a disheartened rest of us that surprises do happen, and
sometimes they’re really good ones.