THROUGH A TOWNIE’S LENS
By Jock Lauterer
To the reader: the following is excerpted from my work-in-progress book honoring my late brother, Nick, titled, “Keeper: A Brother’s Restoration.”
“Family pictures are modest, they’re not often slick and polished, and their specialness to us can be opaque to strangers. But, they’re a record of our passage through our lives, a visual diary… a way of honoring these lives we get to lead on this earth, an attempt at fixing in time, and holding on to, people we loved and who loved us. Collectively, over time, they express feelings that no other kinds of photograph can.”
— Michael Johnston, the New Yorker
“The Secret Art of the Family Photo”
July 14, 2022
Through the viewfinder of her Kodak 35, the mother frames her two sons, standing stiffly in the pre-arranged poses she envisioned. Her boys, Nick, 11, and Jock, 6, respond obligingly.
Taken on two consecutive warm Sundays in January 1952, the pair of crinkle-cut snapshots yield a bonanza of information. In the first, the two brothers proudly display a miniature Confederate battle flag, the banner of old Dixie, as if to send the message, “We’re Southerners now!” — the recent transplants from the California Bay Area getting acculturated to their new home in the Old North State.
Dressed in light jackets against the mild winter’s weather, both boys appear genuinely happy, little brother with scuffed knees and holding some sort of weird horn — and Nick, grinning gamely for the camera in his Boy Scout T-shirt, indicating that the fledgling Scout was now a Tenderfoot in Troop 9 of Chapel Hill. In the background hangs Mom’s hammock, a favorite plaything for the brothers.
Then, there’s the Sunday-go-to-meeting snapshot, taken in almost the same location, but this one revealing the milky quartz chimney of our tee-nincey one-bedroom cottage at 54 Davie Circle, just one mile east of downtown Chapel Hill off Franklin Street. A ramshackle storage shed and the neighbor’s house beyond the rocks and oaks complete the background.
The big brother is dressed formally, suit and tie (hand-me-downs, of course), and little brother not so formal, but both dressed fittingly to attend the grandparents’ University Presbyterian Church. As directed by his mother, Nick holds her bible, appearing to read to me, while I gaze respectfully up at him, pretending to listen attentively.
Digging deeper: that Mom made these snaps so close together begs the question of purpose. Why was she making these pictures? Was it just her documentary imperative to record images of “her boys?” Or was if for the Rush grandparents, who, living nearby on Tenney Circle saw us almost weekly, so they surely didn’t need to be constantly reminded what their grandboys looked like.
So maybe it was for Myra’s two sisters, Alison and Frances. But maybe not; in cleaning out Mom’s house upon her death, we found few letters between the three siblings — or more accurately, I have scant evidence of an active correspondence between the three very different women. Still, it made sense, sort of a ’50s version of Facebook, since both sisters lived far away, “Al” in Philly and “Fran” in LA. Like a brag book that said: I’m powering through in spite of it all. Look at these two fine sons growing up. No, I don’t want — or need your help.
Which was not true at all. She needed everybody’s help in every way. Financially, spiritually, mentally, emotionally. Fiercely independent to a fault, Myra Rush Lauterer, single mother of these two boys, surviving on a humble library clerk’s meager wages, was going to do this thing on her own, damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.
With one exception. Arch, the dad, was supposed to send monthly child support.
So a new line of conjecture opens. Maybe the most obvious reason for this photo-documentation is that the divorced mother was making these pictures for her ex . For I am aware that the divorced pair exchanged some form of postal correspondence, even though Arch was re-married — and that Myra expected — no, that’s not accurate enough; she NEEDED that monthly check from Arch.
When a letter did arrive in our mailbox with an Oakland, California, postmark, Mom would rip it open eagerly.
Once, standing beside her at the front porch mailbox, I watched as she tore open the envelope, only to find Arch’s letter — and no check, resulting in an angry, disappointed curse, delivered under her breath explosively:
If Myra made these photos to shame our “gone daddy” into forcefully reminding him of his two N.C. boys, I fear her efforts went for naught. Remarried with two new “bonus sons,” Jay, 9, and Ralph, 5, Arch had his hands full at home on the West Coast. Back East, over 3,000 miles away, we three were out of sight, out of mind; we were history.
I’m imagining the scene of Arch opening this letter from his ex, the two snapshots slipping out innocently, falling into his big hands. Did he share the images with his third wife, Alice, or show them to his two new boys: “Look, you’ve got step brothers Back East!”
I wish. But more likely, I see a different scenario: he opened the letter from Myra, and when the two snaps of his real sons spilled out, he said the same thing silently to himself, under his breath.
Upon hearing my imagined alternative narrative, Lynne, my good wife and keen observer of human behavior, interjected forcefully, “No, that’s not it!”
“Your mom was just thinking: They’re growing up so fast.
And with a mother’s intuition, she added, tenderly, “Jock, she was just making a memory.”