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On a message from the past

This photo was brought to the latest workshop that Patty and I conducted last Saturday for the community memoir/public art project. The person who brought it is the little baby in the photo. She is being held by her father, who is the soldier in the uniform. It was taken some time between 1943 and 1945. Gretchen's father was on leave. He had already been fighting in Europe. He came all the way back by boat and train to this tiny town in rural Illinois, and he would make the return journey all the way back for a further tour of duty. Look at the 1940s hairstyle of Gretchen's mother. Look at the dress, the close hairstyle, and the wire-framed spectacles of her grandmother, who was standing off to the side, mistakenly believing that she was out of frame and could relax now that she thought she wasn't being subjected to the discomforting gaze of the camera lens. She is clearly a woman who was born in the nineteenth century, and whose experience of farming life in America is probably unimaginable even to Gretchen, who is still living on an Illinois Centennial Farm - a farm that has been in the same family for at least 100 years.

Seeing these sharp-focused pictures at the workshops produces bewildering distortions of time for me: they make a moment from 65 years or longer ago seem vivid and present, and then suddenly I am overtaken by how much our societies have changed since then. It's as if you're sitting in a house when someone throws open a door, revealing a room that you didn't know was there. In that room you see a group of people dressed in styles from a previous generation. You look in surprise at them, and they look back equally amazed. Then someone slams the door shut, and you're not sure what it was exactly that you just saw, or whether you saw anything at all.

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