by Jennie Kaufman



Here she is: a girl sitting in a rowboat on a lake. Sometimes the obvious takes a long time to sink in—the sailor blouse. The boat. Oh. That makes sense.

She was fashionable and he took a lot of pictures of her, her many outfits.

The quick description of her expression is “skeptical.” That’s not enough.

Think: this was in the 1920s, about eighty years ago. She was going to have a life with him. I have pictures of her fifty years later. She no longer looks skeptical.

Is this the look he fell in love with?


I know things about him. He was a man who could be fascinated. By the railroad, for instance. He worked on the railroad, for a while. When “railroad” meant something, when it had the locomotive power later left to rock ’n’ roll. Don’t tell me that today, it’s only money that has that locomotive power. The surrender of the American imagination is something I cannot bear.

I could not tell you what she ever wanted. She may have had it. After he died, my mother found in his safe-deposit box the card she gave him on their last anniversary.

Can I say something about Valentines? The day is almost hated now, resented as a marketing event, a colossal waste of money, a conspiracy against the lonely. But in the 1920s, it was a different world. To buy (or make) a Valentine, a simple card with lace, one’s heartfelt efforts edged with self-deprecating humor—it was still recognizable as an honest, sentimental gesture.

What do I know about the 1920s? But they were not so cynical then. Knowing, yes (“the rich get richer and the poor get children”), but not so cynical as to abdicate the vestiges of citizenship.

I suppose it was a lake in northern Indiana. Look at the corner of her mouth turn up—true skepticism is more timid, doesn’t want to believe. Is she reacting to an instruction of his? She doesn’t mind the picture, but does she question his Vision?

Did he know she was going to look like that? Did he take it because she looked so perfect in her sailor blouse? Did he imagine the shot when he (carefully) packed the camera that morning? Did he know she would somehow surprise him? They were married, I believe, but my mother wasn’t born yet. Were there many boating trips, without the camera? How expensive was the film, how much of an investment in this shot? Divide the cost by the time elapsed between the day it was taken and the day I look at it—will anything ever accrue such value again? Can we hope to save ourselves from saturation?

Maybe he said to her, “I’ll always remember you like this.” And her skepticism—that of a knowing young lady—is mixed with the question: Is this how I wish to be remembered? Is this the outfit I would pick, the lake, the day? This angle, oblique?


. . .


Or, maybe


I have it exactly wrong.

Maybe she trusts him.

Maybe this is a photograph of skepticism left behind.