Half in Shade: Family, Photography, and Fate by Judith Kitchen

Monday, May 7, 2012

Half in Shade: Family, Photography, and Fate

by Judith Kitchen
Coffee House Press

Imagine sifting through a box of old photographs you found in the attic. Some snapshots capture relatives, some complete strangers. Most reveal a world unknown to you but known intimately by deceased relations. You try to piece together what it all means. This, in essence, is the project Judith Kitchen embarks upon in her new part-memoir, part-historical fiction, part-speculation titled Half in Shade: Family, Photography, and Fate. Over the course of ten years, Kitchen has jotted notes about photos she found in her family’s scrapbook. She has now collected her writings into a cohesive work accompanied by approximately seventy images. One image dates as far back as 1860, most date prior to 1950, and most capture relatives and family friends, some of whom Kitchen knew and some of whom she has difficulty identifying. Also included are a few historical pop-culture images, as well as some reproductions of letters and ephemera from Kitchen’s family’s life. The result is an ambitious-yet-diaphanous ontological meditation on knowing, the nature of time, and the effects of history.

In Half in Shade, Kitchen stakes her claim early as a wonderstruck doubter: she is amazed by the possibilities inherent in each image, but as someone from the future, she’s well aware of how things turn out (i.e., usually for the worse). Contemplating a 1939 image of her father doing physics research at the University of Michigan, she notes how young her father is, how guileless and scientific-looking in the predigital age. He is enthusiastic; he is practicing his art. Of his future, Kitchen says: “Careful. The arrow points to zero. Everything is about to begin”—and we get a sense of the sweep of life before him, his to shape and mold. Such poetic weaving of fact, hope, and future is Kitchen at her strongest.

Later, when her father reappears, we are treated to a view of where that hope-laden “everything” finally rested: in a man who would putter in the garden for hours to escape his chore-burdened, neurotic wife. Kitchen speculates that her father planted corn and asparagus because they were “the vegetables that took the least work” and therefore afforded him the most free time outside, away from his family, where he could ruminate endlessly. In characteristic fashion, her description is lyric and pastoral:

Corn is simply a lesson in waiting. A lesson in sunlight and rainfall and fear of an early frost. It measures out the months, and when it is finally there—tassels bending in the breeze, yellow ear hidden inside its green jacket—summer is over.

Prose poems such as these are embedded within the text, a large measure of which catalogs Judith Kitchen’s bafflement that her father and mother became who they were. For example, Kitchen cannot account for her father’s story to her about “two young schoolteachers, too old to be still unmarried. [Her father] liked them both. On thinking, though, he had finally decided on the one with the greater sense of play,” who turned out to be Kitchen’s mother. Kitchen comments, “The story disturbed me because I did not recognize my mother in his final choice.”

Kitchen’s questing after the-mother-she-could-not-recognize is perhaps the book’s weakest thread. A large portion of the middle section is devoted to Kitchen’s scrutiny of the letters, photographs, and ephemera of her mother’s 1930 trip to the Continent. Much is criticized: her mother’s naiveté, her mother’s choice of shoes, her mother’s impersonal journal, her mother’s supposed behavior with a possible lover named “Trueheart,” her mother’s emotional emptiness. Actually the reader may appreciate Kitchen’s mother’s unvarnished enthusiasm and be impressed by her leaving a Michigan farm to become a teacher and saving enough money to travel abroad. However, Kitchen, despite her attempts to overcome a difficult history with her mother, is ultimately unable to see her mother’s younger years through this lens.

She instead treats the reader to dredged-up resentment and irritation: in considering her mother’s relation to Trueheart, she says, “I’ve given my mother the inner life she didn’t give herself” (87); her young mother “bores my sixty-some-year-old self, the one who looks back on my own youth and cannot recognize myself in her” (89). She muses, “I don’t recall ever, not even once, thinking that [a dance was the most important thing in my life]. . . . No, I may not be completely sympathetic, but I envy [my mother] like mad” (97).

While this tension and pettiness can be frustrating, it is also instructive: memories and history can be difficult. That Kitchen makes such an effort (even if failed) at understanding her mother, and that she lays her emotions bare in the attempt, is admirable.

The bulk of the book is an elegiac mélange of reminisce, practicality, and historical instruction, such as Kitchen’s rumination on high school, prompted by her finding a 45-rpm adaptor for a standard player. “You only get about half a decade’s worth of involuntary memory,” she decides. “Five to seven years where just one note heard over half a century later will strike the chord of recollection. Mine spans ‘Mr. Sandman’ to ‘Mack the Knife.’”

She goes on to reflect that:

Those were the pre-pill, pre-abortion days, so you lived with the sense that you, too, could have to spend a year “living with your aunt in East Aurora,” or, worse yet, might “have to get married,” which happened all the time. You’d see your ex-school-mate walking down the sidewalk pushing a stroller, sixteen years old and already out of commission. Your life and hers had diverged—just like that. You were locked forever on one side of the divide. Luck, you called it.

Kitchen’s knack for apt description and the poetic turn is notable. She proves to be up to the very demanding challenge of surveying large swaths of history and connecting them to her life and our current era. This makes Half in Shade well worth the read. Together with the photographs, it offers an entertaining, quirky, and sometimes profound trip down memory lane—even if the lane is not your own.