Auntie Winnie's HandsSaturday, February 20, 2010
Lolita has been on my mind of late simply because I happen to be reading The Annotated Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, Edited with Preface by Alfred Appel Jr. As to why I am reading it my readers here may have to wait a couple more days for a full explanation.
I mention Lolita because the idea of an older man interested in young girls is an experience I have never had. When I was interested in 12-year-old girls I was 10 or 12. I have never felt much of an attraction for a woman much younger than I. And as I get older that gulf seems to get wider. The voices of the announcers of the young females on CBC Radio sound like Canadian variations of Valley Girls of yore. They don’t excite me. Give me Barbara Budd from As It Happens if you want to get any kind of a rise from me. I am not interested in re-gaining my youth through interaction with a young woman or a young girl. It seems that a young blonde girl (in combination with a bright red Mazda Miata) is supposed to give the aging man a sense of a new-found youth. I have never felt that. For me it has been quite the opposite.
Many years ago in the beginning of the 70s I was teaching a grade 12 class in a Mexico City private school. I would often say to my class, “I feel so young when I face you.” One day I was taken to task and one of my students said, “That must be because you are surrounded by youth.” My reply shocked them, “No, it is because I am surrounded by prematurely old people set in their ways who must practice all kinds of self-imposed regulations (particularly dress ones) to feel that they fit in.”
I have often wondered why politicians such as Winston Churchill became more conservative with age. I always thought that one could risk more when time is short. And yet there were people like Bertrand Russell and Linus Pauling who became more liberal and forward thinking as they aged. I mention this as one of my blog follwers sent me a missive suggesting that I was stressing much to much the "age thing". Quite to the contrary I want to point out all the advantages. About a month ago I lost all the data on a hard drive. It included a year's worth (2009) of plant scans and a Power Point presentation that my granddaugther Rebecca and I did at the World Rose Convention back in June. I was devastated. But I noticed that as days became weeks the sense of loss was diminishing to the point that I did not feel the loss at all. When John from Powersonic (in Richmond) called to say, "I have retrieved the data (including those plant scans and the Power Point Presentation) from that drive. It will cost you $600." I felt like saying, "John it is not important at all, anymore. Few things at my age are and that's good!"
It did not come as a shock to me when last week at a birthday party at an East Broadway Japanese restaurant honoring my friend Charles Campbell ( a sort of snobbish “I protest the Olympics” sort of party as it began at 7 pm the day of the opening ceremonies) when another friend Maja Grip told me, “For the first time I see that you are aging.” I felt like countering with a kind reply (kind replies come with age) in which I would have said, “For someone your age who never flaunted her charms you are showing today a fair amount of very attractive cleavage.”
It was about 5 years ago that I had a model that I have photographed many times during the years come into my studio. She was a beautiful woman who in the last 10 years has cut her lovely hair and worn clothing she would have never worn before. It is almost as if she wanted to hide her beauty to be accepted for who she is. I would argue that individuality is what makes us be me and not her and part of that individuality is how we look. A world of look-alike clones would be a most confusing one.
As I was adjusting my camera settings she looked at my hands and gasped. “What is it?” I asked. She said nothing. I knew that she had noticed my weathered/age/garden hands and suddenly noticed that I was a much older man. It could have been that my hands were an equivalent to looking at herself in the mirror.
Hands have always been important in my life. I remember my father’s strong but small and elegant hands stained by his Player’s Navy Cut cigarettes. I remember my mother’s beautiful piano hands with long slim fingers and immaculate finger nails. She also had beautiful feet which I inherited. Alas I did not inherit her hands but until that model had noticed my hands in the studio I had always bragged about my gentleman’s hands. They were hands that were soft and uniform in colour with nicely kept nails. I bragged that I didn’t have the hands of a ditch digger.
But garden work and particularly the caring for my beloved roses have changed that. Just the pruning of a viciously endowed rambler, Rosa ‘Albertine” a few days ago has left my hands with scratches, wounds and festering sores.
Rosemary cannot remember when it exactly happened that she stopped being able to trim the nails of her right hand. She comes over to my side of the bed (the left side) and sits on the edge so I can trim her nails (anybody out there, a small portable hand vacuum would make an excellent Christmas present).
I have few memories of my father’s older brother, my Uncle Harry and his wife Winnie. One involves a nighttime dinner at their Acassuso home in Buenos Aires. I could smell Uncle Harry’s predilection for tobacco and alcohol as I watched him whip up some Colman’s mustard. I may have been 7 or 8 but I did notice that he put in a teaspoonful of sugar into the mixture. His hands were big. They looked like a working man's hands. Last year my first cousin Willoughby Blew came to visit us with his wife from Florida. He watched me put sugar into my Coleman’s (now Keen’s) powder and said, “Just like Uncle Harry used to make it.”
It is the other memory of my Auntie Winnie serving us tea in her quintessential English dining room on a sunny afternoon when I noticed her disfigured hands. She could barely lift the tea pot to serve us tea. I have no other image of Auntie Winnie. Her face is a blur but her hands are as sharp in my memory now as the shock of seeing them as a little boy then.
That memory is reinforced every night when I sleep. I move around and my hands get caught under the pillow. My pinkies throb. I have arthritis. At my rate I will soon not be able to prune my roses as the secateurs will be unmanageable in my hands.
But I know for sure I will still be able to stir in that sugar into my mustard.
If anybody were to ask me precisely what my style is when I shoot my portraits I would answer, “I like eye contact with my camera and I always try to incorporate my subject’s hands. After our face, our hands reveal the most about us.”