Dinner with the Clarks, 1957
I came across an interesting old photo last week. Well, interesting to me, that is. Whether it’s interesting to you is another matter.
I am sitting in my high chair at dinner with my parents. (What a cute baby!) A lamp with shade is growing out of the top of my head – evidence of an inexpert photographer. I am looking at the camera with an expression that seems to say, “What snarky comments will I be making about this image 53 years hence?” (Assuming, of course, that I possessed some preternatural baby intelligence and insight.)
There’s no doubt at all about what Mom finds most interesting, here: Me. Look at her. In all the years I’ve grown up with her I have rarely seen that look of sheer, unadulterated pride and joy. She is obviously happy and content. Her baby is fat and healthy and about to eat, and all is right in the world. Whenever I take photos of families, especially the ones with small children, I always have to tell the mothers the same thing: “Look at ME, not your child.” Mothers are forever beaming at and doing visual checks of their children. That’s what mothers do.
When Mom died a family friend told me with some force, “No matter what she did or said, your mother really loved you. To her you were the center of everything.” You can see that in this photo.
Dad has on one of those 1950’s shirts with a ‘way open neck. That is some expanse of working-class hair on his chest, there. Harry Belafonte done one better. He also has an engaging expression on his handsome, hale-fellow-well-met Anglo-Saxon face. This photograph is a necessary distraction; he’s ready to eat.
And what’s for dinner? Baby carrots in that dual white dish on one side, and what may be corn in the other. There’s a plate that has a rugged miniature landscape of mashed potatoes. A glass goblet appears to be filled with water, but knowing Dad, it’s probably beer with no head. Mom is handling a colored napkin – perhaps she just wiped my face or is about to because that’s another thing mothers do.
And on the plate in the foreground is… what is that? It looks like a party favor or perhaps one of those Christmas crackers. Whomever took the photo hasn’t yet loaded up his plate. We clearly haven’t starting eating because my tray is spotless.
I’m pretty sure this is the interior of their apartment on Virginia Avenue – my first home. (And foreshadowing, since I’ve now lived in Virginia for over twenty years.) Mom hung the pictures too high. And what pictures! On the left it looks like some illustration from Life magazine about the canals in Europe. The middle has some Renaissance kid or cherub, and the right one can’t be made out. A metal sconce with some crooked candles is on an adjoining wall. I suspect this apartment may have come furnished because this isn’t Mom’s style at all. I vividly remember her trying to suggest her New Hampshire roots in California with kitschy Colonial furniture and knickknacks.
What makes me think this is our Virginia Avenue apartment and not somebody else’s house is the crocheted throw seen on the sofa just behind Mom’s right shoulder; I remember it well. It was colorful with a black background – perhaps my earliest exposure to a colors-on-black motif, which I have always found fascinating for some reason.
I like this photo. In my memory, Mom and Dad constantly fought and argued like the proverbial cat and dog. When Dad died I wondered why Mom went through such a prolonged grieving process, reflecting upon how many years they flung insults and criticisms at one another. But here they’re a young middle-aged (Dad was 44, Mom 35) couple – a family, and they wear unforced, sincere smiles. It’s an image that generates so much optimism that, I think, even the inexpert photographer saw it. This was America in the mid 1950’s and the possibilities were enormous.
POSTSCRIPT: Digging around in old family photographs I have determined that the dinner scene above was taken on the occasion of my first birthday (April 27th, 1957), so I have changed the date in the title from 1956 to 1957.
You can see that Mom and Dad are wearing the same clothing as in the photo at the top of this page, and my hair and clothing are exactly the same. Mom baked me a big cake, and always told me of how I made an utter mess of things at this occasion. (Well, of course! Elegant dining is not in the purview of the one year-old.) Either that's a photographic flaw of some kind or the world's largest single birthday cake candle. The little girl with the closed eyes and the paper hat (did it come from the party favor in the top photo?) is, I think, Debbie Ferriter, an early playmate. Her father and my father were close friends.
Things are well underway here. An early model television can be seen behind me at left; at right is the blonde cabinet hi-fi. My helmet and goggles await me.
I am clearly well pleased! Behind me, on the hi-fi, is Dad's golfing trophy which I remember from my childhood. I never remember a golf club in the player's hands; my parents told me that as a baby I once swiped it off a table and broke it. It appears that it's missing in this shot. On the right hand margin of this image you can see a couple of the large flash bulbs which provided illumination for these photos. And a 1950's-looking planter. My green chair can be seen behind my high chair.
Debbie and me in my nursery. Debbie had red, red hair. My helmet and goggles prepare me for a ride in that Radio Tot wagon. A changing table is seen at upper right; is that a black radio? Various ceramic Disney critters can be seen as well as some Little Golden Books, stuffed animals and a top. That odd, conical thing to the left of my face appears to be a straw hat from the Los Angeles County Fair.
The only toy I recall from this shot is this plastic fish, which was a tub toy. It had a hole on the bottom and I used to squeeze it to suck in water and then squeeze it again to "pee," which delighted me enormously.
Photos from subsequent birthdays (4th, 5th, 7th, 8th and 14th) begin here.