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The Truth of the Moment

Past and present merge in a vintage photograph

by Stephanie Piper

I have clipped the picture from an article about an auction of old photographs. It's a daguerreotype of a sleeping child, dated 1850. In an era when children posed stiffly on horsehair sofas or stood before backdrops of painted mountains, it is an anomaly. It's a 19th century snapshot, a candid. It is the candor that haunts me, the absolute truth of a 150-year-old moment.

In this picture, I can see the flower pattern of the little girl's smocked dress and the texture of the linen sheet that covers her. I can see that her hair is damp, the way children's hair grows damp when they sleep. I can imagine the measured peace of her breathing, imagine drawing up a chair to sit by the bed and watch her and feel, for a moment, absolute calm.

She looks uncannily like my brother's first child, a dark-haired girl who lives in Boston, where this picture was taken a century and a half ago. I think at first that is what draws me, the family resemblance, the geographic coincidence.

But it's more than that. Her sepia-toned world seems suddenly accessible. It's as though a window has opened on the past, and the distant shapes, the vague outlines, snap into focus. I once was real, this child's little starfish hand proclaims. Someone chose this dress. Someone covered me with this sheet. Someone said, she's sleeping like an angel. Take the photograph now.

I peer through the window at the rumpled bedclothes, the dim glow of a white sheet in a darkened room. Why does it move me so, this homely detail? Why do I feel like a time traveler when I take this picture from my desk drawer?

I am drawn to her because of all she never knew: school shootings and crack babies and MTV and the incessant din of the 21st century. I want to know the things she knew, lamplighters at dusk on a Boston street, carriage wheels on cobblestones, a whole succession of Masterpiece Theater images that seem the stuff of fantasy but were, to this child, real life.

Of course, one could argue, she would know worse things: a war in which American fields ran with American blood, a world in which women routinely died in childbirth, and poverty was often fatal. It's a mistake to romanticize the 19th century.

But it's equally a mistake to dismiss it. Knee-deep in Palm Pilots and genetically engineered vegetables, we live today as though the past never happened, as though it's some static collection of dates and stone monuments. Supremely self-referential, we act as though we've cornered the market on the human experience.

Things were different in the olden days, we all know that. It's a belief supported by the visual evidence, stern portraits of steely-eyed soldiers, formidable patriarchs, brides in dresses as tiered and flounced as wedding cakes. Things were different, we believe, until we happen upon a picture of a child sleeping in a rumpled bed, her arm flung over her head in the timeless child's gesture of weary surrender.

I look at the other photo on my desk. It's a family group posed in a summer garden, my family, my garden. I see the crisp stripe of a shirt, the white wicker chairs, the mouth of my youngest son closed firmly over his brand-new braces. I can't predict this picture's fate. A century from now, it might be tucked lovingly into a descendant's album, or stuck in an exhibit of 20th century memorabilia. It would be wise to write our names on the back, and the date, and the place. But what I really want to write is this: We were real. We were here. And we didn't know these were the olden days.

June 8, 2000 * Vol. 10, No. 23
© 2000 Metro Pulse