Two childhood snaps

Author: Antoinette Marshall

More than half-a-century after they were taken, I found these two black-and-white photos. I felt uneasy and puzzled in front of them. What was their message for me ?

These two small girls on the photographs –
that’s me. Two very different black-and-white
snaps in a family album from the 40s. Two very different children, one is a baby about one year old, the other a toddler around three. They stare at me, out of the past. Which one, I
ask myself, is the real Me?

The baby girl is sitting up, a dark blodge
against the white blandness of an unknown photographer’s studio. Dark hair all astray, a
ribbon perilously stuck on the top-knot, dark eyes darting angry arrows in all directions, stubby nose frowning, sullen mouth twisted
into a rage. The silence vibrates with her secret turmoil. The fat little arms end in two
clenched fists, and the white bootees at the end of two stumpy legs are kicking at an invisible enemy. I see now the lace of the frock frothing up in despair.

Everyone, my mother told me once, was downhearted over this photograph. “You threw a tantrum and the photographer, poor
man, was at his wits’ end. He never could make you sit still and give a smile. You kicked him, threw all his lovely toys across the
room, you scratched me,and even spat at your sister’s face, howling on and on. You
did NOT want to have your photo taken! But
we did it!

Yes, they did it. And they did it again, about two years later. In the same provincial studio. On the later photograph, the raging infant has become a tame child. The wild, primitive small animal has been subjugated , made
civilized. Now the neat curly hair is wrapped up into a a small bow at the top, a chocolate
box look. Knees are kept tightly together in a
standing position, the left one bulging slightly
forward, above home-knitted striped socks, and black-laced boots. One plump hand holds on to a pendant at the neck of the smart tartan frock. Clutching a small disc of wood with the picture of a lap-dog on it. Above the high collar, the round face smiles shyly, all very smooth lines but for the two darkish oval eyes. Their expression sways, for me now, between the begging and the pathetic: “What is it you want of me?'”

What happened between these two snaps?
In the world at large, a war. In the family, my father’s departure in uniform. In the later photo, the spark of rage in the baby’s eyes has been smothered. At three I looked already a
timid and almost resigned child. I spoke rather late, my parents said, but they could not complain about my behaviour, I never threw tantrums after my first birthday (the occasion
for the first photograph?) and I was toilet- trained by eighteen months old. I became
a “good” quiet little girl. Had the rage and the
screams turned mute in my throat? Many years later, they still suffocate me at times, it seems. Can you stifle howling and bottle up
rage without risks?

Some secret dreams and fantasies remain wild and often scary. The “wide open spaces”
still haunt me. Then I want to shake the bars
of the civilized cage I call my existence. But I
cannot. Not yet. Under the poised, calm appearance, I am sometimes aware there is a small wild beast crying and raging. I don’t
totally understand what it is all about. Shall I ever let it go free? The photographs don’t give me a clue. I held them to the mirror of my face today, and they turned blank. I heard
someone behind the mirror crying softly
through the long silent years.