Memento Mori

Published in Under The Gum Tree, January 2015

 

Just past the small border town of Jacumba, the road leveled off and I pulled my car to the shoulder to take in a new scene. Outside of San Diego, past El Cajon and Lakeside, the 8 Freeway had climbed steadily over the rocky foothills leading up to the Cuyamaca and Laguna Mountains, then steep on into the mountains themselves at Alpine, until the drive mellowed as the road crossed the Lagunas in graceful, rolling inclines through grassy meadows and hills dotted with live oak and pine. At Jacumba, I had suddenly found myself in a landscape of rust-red boulders balanced precariously on top of each other in tall, peaked piles. The vegetation all but disappeared and there was no life in sight, save for a couple of hawks making slow, lazy circles in the air. Then, just as the road began its descent, a cloud of flame-colored shapes filled the mountain passes, fluttering like falling leaves, flashing brightly against the deep blue desert sky and crashing into my windshield in tiny explosions of sticky yellow-green – thousands of butterflies on a spring migration.

 

I pulled off the road and stepped out of my car, stretching out my arms to let the insects land almost weightlessly on my hands. Thousands of them – local Painted Lady butterflies similar to, though slightly smaller than, Monarchs – floated through the jagged canyons on the dry side of the Laguna Mountains, riding thermal currents of dry air on their journey out of Mexico. I brought my hands close to my eyes and looked at their trembling soft bodies, their blood-orange wings speckled with curving patterns in black, while they drummed their furry feet against my skin. It seemed like a miracle.

 

This first visit to the Imperial Valley was at my mother's suggestion. I was looking for a landscape to shoot for my community college black and white photography class. I was living in Orange County at the time, where everything is landscaped and brightly colored and an ocean view is never far away. It was all beautiful, but hollow. I wanted to see something new. My mom remembered a road trip she once took between San Diego and Phoenix with my dad. It's a long drab drive, six hours without traffic, and most of it she remembered as flat and monotonous except for one spot: a vast sea of sand dunes near the Arizona state line. These were the Algodones Dunes, six miles wide and 45 miles long, crossing into Mexico for a few miles on its southern side, passing underneath the heavy metal border fence that hugs the curves of the sand hills like a giant undulating spine.

 

I had never been to the Colorado Desert, but I had driven through the Mojave, with friends, on the way to Las Vegas. Those drives were mainly at night, and even during the day, it's a high-speed crowded race on the 15 where everyone's going at least 90 mph and the scenery – flat camel-colored bajadas spotted with low dark shrubs, bare jagged mountains on either side, the freeway cutting through the land in two straight lines fading at the horizon – flashes by too fast. I was drawn to this first glimpse of the desert and I was eager for the chance to explore one closer by.

 

I got back in my car and drove through the butterfly clouds, down the mountain along a winding road that clung to sheer cliff in some places, then on to the desert floor, past the flash flood-scarred washes at the edge of the Anza Borrego Badlands, through the flatlands where spindly ocotillo are the sole vertical break from the unrelenting horizontal landscape, past the farms at El Centro with their irrigation ditches flashing the glare of reflected sunlight, and finally reaching the dunes just as the sun was getting low in the sky.

 

The dunes were just as my mother had described them. Massive and elegant in their sweeping, graceful curves. By late afternoon the caramel-colored sand had taken on a vivid salmon cast. I was photographing in black and white, so instead of color, my film captured the full gradient from light to dark, from the sun-facing, gentle sloping windward side to the sharp-edged, deeply shadowed slip face. My film caught the subtle texture of the sand, the pockmarks from a recent spring rain, the ripples left by a wind that spread across the crests like traveling waves spreading across a pond.

 

When I returned home, after I had developed my film and printed the images in the darkroom, I would stare at these images. I'd trace the lines and curves of the dunes with my eye as I looked through the loupe at the glow of my negatives on the light table. I labored at the enlarger over landscapes of peaked boulders and skinny ocotillo. The place already had a hold on me, the power of the land etched itself in the latent image on my film. For months the dried remains of butterflies stayed embedded in the grate on the front of my car, their wings fluttering in the wind as if they were alive, translucent ghost traces of their vivid live selves. I let them fall off on their own, not daring to touch the inert bodies of creatures that had seemed as insubstantial as spirit before they died. It was as if they held some kind of totemic power. It seemed that they, along with the photographs, beckoned me back to Imperial.

 

...

 

My first serious camera was a sixteenth birthday present from my mom's boyfriend and eventual third husband Michael. It was wrapped in the brown paper from a grocery bag, and he could hardly wait for me to open it before launching into an excited explanation. It was a Minolta XG-9, a model popular in the late ’70s and early ’80s for entry-level photographers. For all I knew, it could have come off the assembly line in Japan the day I was born. Despite some minor scratches in the stainless steel body and some stretching and peeling of the leather hand grip across the front, the camera worked perfectly. I was planning on taking my first photography class the following semester in high school, and Michael insisted this was the perfect camera to learn with.

 

He explained the basic functions of the camera. Its body was boxy, all right angles and straight lines, the high-tech, futuristic look of the day. It fit snugly in my hand but it was substantial, with no plastic parts. Opening the back, I could watch the cloth curtain of the shutter open and close.

 

As I progressed with my photo lessons, I could imagine what was going on inside that dark box the moment I cocked the shutter and flooded the film with light: Photons reflecting from objects would pour into the lens from all directions, across the entire visible spectrum, from high-energy, rapidly cycling waves of violet, to low energy, gently rippling waves of red. The light, bent by the lens, would flip itself upside-down before striking the strip of film held tight against the camera's rear pressure plate. The film was clear plastic, onto which was painted a layer of gelatin – a collagen jelly rendered from the bones, skins and connective tissues of cattle, chicken, and pigs. In this jelly was suspended a thin layer of hexagonal and triangular silver-halide crystals. When a photon hit an electron in one of these crystals, it would nudge it to dance outside its atomic bonds, where it would roam through the crystal lattice before falling and bonding with a silver ion, forming a stable silver atom. Silver would clump together in proportion to the amount of light flooding the film. An invisible, latent image, perfect in every detail, would be created. In this image would exist – locked up in silver – some of the original energy from the scene that had been photographed, converted from photon to free electron to trapped-in-place atom. Much more than a representation of the scene, the photographic negative would hold a part of that scene's actual essence, some of its soul living on there – stolen or saved, depending on your perspective.

 

As I learned how to operate my camera and process film in the school's darkroom, I showed Michael the results of my labors. It was the one thing we shared, and I enjoyed his company. He was soft-spoken, patient, and intelligent. My mom had met him at her AA meeting and they had started dating shortly after her second marriage ended. She liked his soft brown eyes and tanned skin. I liked him because he wasn't angry or violent like her previous husband. But I wasn't looking for another father figure, and he – a father of two from a previous marriage broken by his serious drug and alcohol abuse – didn't need any more children to look after. His subtle and unobtrusive photography instruction was the closest he ever came to being a figure of any authority for me. It was mostly just a pleasant hobby to share.

Sometime after he gave me the Minolta, Michael was arrested for an outstanding DUI, a ghost from his drinking years. At the time, his brain chemistry was still so far out of balance from years of drug abuse that he required daily medication to function. While in prison for three months after his arrest he was denied his medication, so day and night he fought hallucinations: the walls closing in, swarms of insects crawling over him. To maintain his grasp on reality, he wrote several letters a day to my mom. In one of them, he enclosed a photo torn from the pages of a magazine, an aerial shot of an ice rink in Central Park. Dark, dark blurred figures of skaters streaking and swirling around the oval rink as snow fell around them. Heather, isn't this lovely? I thought you might like it, he wrote, in nearly illegible, wildly inconsistent letters.

 

...

 

I took one picture of my mother in the hospital after she died. She’d fought stomach cancer for two years — suffering through a painful surgery that removed her stomach and part of her intestine, enduring long bouts of chemotherapy and radiation. The surgeons crafted a pouch out of her small intestines, linking it directly to her esophagus, tying up the loose ends of a ravaged digestive system. They hoped the pouch would work as an impromptu stomach, but the damage was too extensive and the scar too slow to heal, so she was forced to take her nutrition through a feeding tube plugged into a vein above her heart. The catheter became infected regularly, resulting in long hospital stays, a barrage of high-powered antibiotics, and days without regular nutrition. The cancer stayed in remission for nearly two years, but even so, her body wasted to its barest form, just sinew and bone, and leathery skin.

 

Still she was beautiful, her skin aglow with almost translucent paleness, her puff of thin, gray hair accentuating weightless, birdlike features. It struck me time and again during her supposed recovery that she had never looked as graceful as she did now. Her frame had wasted away, her thin neck looking too frail to support her skull. But her steel blue eyes demanded attention, and she had power when she spoke, gathering the air between delicate hands to shape images there.

 

She lost that grace and power when the cancer returned. In the hospital, medicated beyond comprehension, her only sign of life was the air that rattled through her lungs, shaking her body with every breath. Supported by IVs plugged into bruised veins, she seemed more machine than human.

 

Right before she died the interval between her breaths grew longer and we waited, me on one side of her bed, my brother and his wife on the other. Her favorite album, Norah Jones' Feels Like Home, played softly near her bed. “Sunrise” was the last song before the end. Her troubled breathing finally stopped as Norah sang, Now the night will throw its cover down on me again. And if I'm right it's the only way to bring me back. We sat holding her hands for another minute, a peaceful minute, then left the room together.

 

By the time my sister arrived at the hospital with her husband, a nurse had cleaned our mother's body. She took the IVs from her hands, crossed her arms over her chest, settled her posture into a peaceful symmetry, and propped her head up on a pillow. A warm overhead light that I had never noticed illuminated her in a dim glow. We stood in the dark, silent room regarding the nurse's handiwork. My sister finally broke the silence.

 

“She looks so peaceful. I wish I could take a picture of her like this.”

 

I silently disagreed but volunteered that I had a camera with me, a digital point-and-shoot borrowed from my husband. Hardly looking at the viewfinder, I took the picture, then quickly stowed the camera in my pocket.

 

“Thank you. I'll want to get that from you,” she said as we left the room.

 

She never did ask for the photograph, but I held onto it just in case. I buried the image file inside multiple folders, but I still somehow manage to stumble upon the thumbnail from time to time. Even with the soft amber overhead light and the careful posing of the nurse, there's no mistaking the portrait for a living person. Her skin is yellow and waxy. Her face lacks any glimmer of expression. She is totally rigid, as if coated in resin. She doesn't look peaceful. She just looks dead.

 

...

 

Michael didn't come to the hospital that night, and he didn't attend the viewing at the funeral home. I didn't either, and I couldn't blame him for not wanting to see. Whether the picture is burned into the retinas of the eyes or onto a camera sensor, some images never fade. As a photographer, Michael knew the importance of carefully choosing the images to frame in your line of sight – whether they end up immortalized in a photograph or just in the memory.

 

In her book On Photography, Susan Sontag argues that all photographs are memento mori, that “to take a photograph is to participate in another person's (or thing's) mortality, vulnerability, mutability.” But it needn’t be a photograph that gives witness to mortality. Anything can be memento mori, a reminder of a moment in time that cannot be reclaimed.

 

Instead of attending my mother's viewing, Michael kept relics to remind him of her. For more than a year, he kept her hairbrush on the bathroom shelf exactly as she left it. For years my mother had brushed her hair and casually set the brush down in its place, with no sense of ceremony, never suspecting there would be a last time that she would be well enough to tend to her looks. In their bedroom, hidden under months of unopened mail, a coffee mug with a red lipstick stain on the rim sat untouched. Her books, her CDs, her little trinkets, sat where she had left them on tabletops and bookshelves. No photograph was necessary to freeze those moments.

 

...

 

After my mom passed away, I took up my camera with a new sense of urgency. I traveled along back roads in the mountains east of San Diego, exploring abandoned buildings in the desert where I had first photographed sand dunes and ocotillos. After a decade of looking at the world through a viewfinder, photography was a way not to freeze the world in some ideal state, but to view as the camera did – unjudging, undiscriminating – a world that others chose not to stop and see. I lingered around forgotten homes along Old Highway 80, a desert road that was once a main thoroughfare connecting San Diego and Savannah. I was haunting a dead world, stalking some beauty left behind.

 

Over several years, I kept returning to three small houses built close to each other and surrounded by a dead forest of short, dusty palm trees. Little clouds of white dust rose into the air with each footstep, settling on my tongue and filling my mouth with the taste of salt. The ruins were in a desolate forgotten community once named Dixieland, although none of the locals I talked to recognized that name. The houses stood in the middle of the Imperial Valley, an improbable land of agricultural bounty surrounded by desert on the ancient floodplain of the Sea of Cortez.

 

Inside one of the houses, dressed up with the tatters of coral-pink curtains and the remnants of white Christmas lights, I found a family photo album lying in the dust – a young girl, her older brother, their parents smiling over them. I cannot guess what panic drove them out so suddenly, leaving these memories behind..

 

I took my pictures, captured a ghost image in silver of the house crumbling around the album, the desert wind tearing the curtains to rags. I've come back over the years. Everything changes constantly. The album is gone, new rusty cans and stained mattresses left behind by passing transients have taken their place. These are signs enough of mortality and change. But at the very least, the images inscribed onto my negatives can tell a story of a brief chapter in time. There was life here, once, and someone was watching.