A belt and an old photo bind me to a moment

While sorting through some old photographs recently, my attention was drawn to a tiny black-and-white snapshot. I had seen it before, of course, but it had been many years ago. It hadn't meant much to me then. Perhaps a half century or more needs to pass between the recording of an incident and the appreciation of the memory.

My mother had two missions in life: a dust-free house and a photographic record of everything that happened in our family. She disdained "candid" picture-taking, insisting rather that all action stop while she got just the right pose.

It was often frustrating to be forced to stop in the middle of an exciting time to get into the position she demanded and stand frozen while she squinted into the black square-box Kodak. I have come to be grateful for her fetish with the Kodak.

The particular photograph I came across is one of my favorites from that era. In fact, when I rediscovered it, I had an enlargement made and framed it. It hangs in my bedroom today. The memory of that morning is perhaps more vivid now than at any other time in my adult life.

My mother's father and stepmother lived a distance from us, probably 60 miles - an awesome drive in the late 1920s. The roads were earthen and rutted from the rain and the occasional automobile that passed. A visit from these grandparents every two years or so was an exciting event, especially for a 4-year-old granddaughter.

The picture was taken early in the morning that my father's parents were leaving for home. Of course it was early: No one would begin a 60-mile drive without the whole day ahead. It took a long time to travel that far and, besides, there was the inevitable car trouble.

Another reason for their early departure was to try to sneak away before I woke up and threw a fit because my beloved and seldom-seen grandparents were leaving. Their plan failed. I awakened and walked in on the packing scene.

I don't remember the fit I must have had, but I recall every detail of my scheme to thwart my grandparents' plans. My grandmother had chosen a dark dress for her trip home. I suppose she was trying to stop my screaming when she enlisted my help in finding the belt that went with the dress.

I distinctly remember looking around the clothes-strewn room and finding the belt, which was in plain sight on the bed beside the dress. As she continued to pack, I had an inspiration. If she didn't have the belt, I reasoned, she couldn't go. They would have to stay longer with us, maybe for weeks, until the belt showed up.

And I had it.

My mother played right into my scheme. She told me to go back to my room and put on my bathrobe so I could go outside with them when they were ready to leave.

With the belt in my hand, I did as she told me. But instead of putting the tie to the bathrobe around my waist, I wrapped my grandmother's belt around the bathrobe. It would never be noticed there, I thought.

Gloating at my manipulation of the situation, I returned to my grandparents' room. My grandmother made a big commotion over not finding the belt. Where was it? She wondered aloud. Was it lost? What in the world would she do without the belt? And so on.

I just stood and smiled. Finally, grandmother put on another belt and complained profusely that it didn't go with her dress, that she hated traveling all that way wearing the wrong belt. I just stood and smiled.

When the packing was finished and the car loaded, we all went out to the garage. I was still smiling. My grandparents thought they were leaving, but I knew better. A lady would never be seen wearing a belt that didn't match her dress!

My mother was Johnny-on-the-spot with her Kodak.

I posed with my grandparents: she with the light-colored belt shining against the dark dress, and I with her dark belt looking equally inappropriate around my waist. That is the photo I cherish today. My smirk tells the story.

After the picture was snapped, my mother took the belt from me, She didn't record my fitful farewell.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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