Conversations with Nick

THROUGH A TOWNIE’S LENS

By Jock Lauterer
Columnist

Note to the reader: the following is an excerpt from a work-in-progress homage to my late brother, Nick, who died at 15. A troubled teen traumatized by the absence of his father, he got into a fight with his mother one night and then ran away from home, riding his bike with no lights and wearing no helmet, all the way to Raleigh, where he was struck and killed by a drunk driver.  His mother, Myra, never got over the loss. Only recently has Nick’s younger brother, 10 at the time, began making restitution, using old family snapshots as breadcrumbs to guide him, one by one, through the dark forest of the past. The book’s working title is “KEEPER: A Brother’s Restoration.”

In the winter of 1945, when Myra was six months pregnant, she had several memorable conversations with 4-year-old Nick about the new baby scheduled to arrive that summer.  She, Arch, and their pre-schooler were living in an apartment in Bronxville, N.Y., where Arch taught drama at Sarah Lawrence College.

Long before the days of commercial tape recorders, much less digital voice devices (or gender reveal parties), Myra recorded the exchanges using the only practical method available to her — using a blue fountain pen to document the dialogue with hand-written, ink-on-paper notes neatly laid out on blank unlined pages in a simple 5″x7″  hardbound workbook.

How she pulled off this bit of journalistic sleight of hand, I can’t know, but what we have is a very legible back-and-forth, in a “Q and A” format, reminiscent of a script for a stage play — which is fitting, given the family flair for the theatre.

My best guess is that she transcribed the conversation from memory as faithfully as possible as soon as she found time to dash down the exchange. As a former reporter, I can attest that her handwriting is far too legible for it to have been done live on the spot, during the chat in real-time.

In this transcription,  we hear a bright and engaged Nick being clearly excited about the arrival of his new sibling and fascinated with the whole question of where babies come from. The conversations follow, word for word.

N:      Which kind of baby do you want most?

M:       A girl.

N:       I want a boy — maybe we’d better have two together. A boy for me and a girl for you.

M:      Well, I don’t think so, but I wouldn’t mind having a whole family of boys. I like boys.

N:       I know. I’m a boy! But girls are nice too.

                  ***                                              ***                                              ***                                              ***

N:      How are babies made?

M:      By God and Daddy and Mommy.

N:      Can’t I make a baby?

M:     Not until you’re grown up.

N:      Well, I CAN have boys and girls now.

M:     Not until you’re a man like Daddy.

N:      I can TOO have boys and girls right now. I got boys and girls up at school. They’re MINE!   

                  ***                                              ***                                              ***                                              ***

N:      How does a baby get anything to drink from those bumps of yours? Does he suck and suck till he gets something?

M:      That’s right.

N:       What does he get?

M:       Milk.

N:       Why doesn’t he get ORANGE JUICE from them?

M:      Because milk is best for a baby, and he must have it first. Later we give him orange juice from oranges.

N:       Well, can he get milk from MY bumps?

M:       No.

N:       Why not?

M:       Only ladies who are mothers can give milk to babies.

N:        Well, what do I have these things for?

M:       Well, that’s hard to explain. It’s the way God made you. You see, at the time, God hadn’t decided whether to make you a girl or a boy and he had already given these ‘bumps’ so you could be a girl… But later, he decided you should be a boy. Those bumps aren’t good for anything now; they just mean you could have been a girl.

                                                      ***                                              ***                                              ***                                              ***

N:          After the baby is born, will your tummy get all flat?

M:          Well, some.

N:           Why?

M:           Well, it’s something like a balloon. You know, when you blow air into a balloon, it gets big and fat; when you let it out, it gets thin again. It’s the baby inside of me that is making me grow big and fat — and when the doctor takes the baby out, I’ll get some thinner right away, and later I’ll be gradually thinner.

N:           And then will you eat and eat a lot and get fat again?

 

                                    ***                                              ***                                              ***                                              ***

N:            How is the baby now? (patting my tummy)

M:            Please don’t lean against my tummy

N:            Because I might hurt the baby?

M:            Yes.

N:            If I lean against your shoulder, I wouldn’t hurt the baby, will I?

                                    ***                                              ***                                              ***                                              ***

N:            Can I go to the hospital to watch the doctor take the baby out of you?

M:            No. No one is allowed to watch unless he’s a doctor or a nurse.

N:            Do I have to stay home all the time with Daddy?

M:            Why, you can come to the hospital and see me and the baby very soon after the baby is born.

N:            When we bring the little baby home, we’ll leave him here and go to the grocery store and bring her back an apple. So you think he’ll like that?

Nicky Sayings

Though the mother doesn’t record her answer to the above question, she goes on to another page titled “Nicky Sayings.”

  • Maybe when our new baby comes, she will make marks on you like I did.
  • How does the baby get cod liver oil when you drink it?
  • Why are Saturday and Sunday such a long time?

The Camera Points Both Ways

Finally, no photo meditation would be complete without unpacking the snapshot — a deceptively simple portrait of a pensive child — but one that belies the photographic skills that the mother brings to this intimate portrait of her first-born son.

From the technical side: She is using her completely manual Kodak 35 mm model camera without the benefit of a light meter, meaning that she is “guesstimating” the exposure controls — setting her own shutter speed and aperture based on experience and luck. And I would add, as photographers say, “a good eye.”

For even an advanced beginner, pulling off such a disarming candid study would be no mean feat — especially considering the relatively primitive nature of photographic film in 1945, there in the depths of WWII, when consumer resources were scarce due to the war effort.

My educated guess is that she is using Kodak Plus X film with an ASA/ISO rating of about 160. Without getting too photo-nerdy, that number of 160 refers to the light sensitivity of the film, which is dramatically low compared to today’s standards.

In simple terms, what the layperson needs to appreciate is that Myra, shooting with the only film available at the time, is mindfully and steadily hand-holding her camera at a relatively slow shutter speed of 1/30th or possibly 1/60th of a second and coupling that with an aperture of f/3.5, the lens’ maximum opening.

Bottom line: the slightest shaking of the camera would have resulted in a blurred image, and to achieve this image, the photographer must have known that.

Of all the snapshots in this assembly, this little portrait, with its professional style,  is the single image that most closely resembles the more advanced techniques of documentary photojournalism. To wit:

  • The skillful and intentional use of available window light.
  • The artful framing of the subject’s face is slightly off-center.
  • The use of the gorgeous dark background to accentuate the boy’s face fulfills the old photo mantra: “Dominant Foreground; Contributing Background.”
  • And finally, the exceptionally introspective “decisive moment” captured by Myra, the mother behind the lens.

In my career as a working photojournalist, I have photographed a lot of children — and this image stands out for its intimate and revealing nature. Nick, obviously aware of the camera a moment ago, seems to have forgotten about it and is caught off guard, lost in faraway reflection.

It’s a look that tugs at my heartstrings, for does it not foreshadow and even portend the suffering he must endure in only a trio of years? In his face, I see something of Thich Nhat Hanh’s “wounded child.” The vulnerable little soul, as if he can see, or at least sense, his troubled future. It makes me want to take him in my arms and tell him, “Don’t worry, little Nicky, it’s going to be OK.”

Even if I know better.


Jock Lauterer is a longtime photojournalist, honored in 2020 by PEN America as a “Local Journalist Hero. He is a senior lecturer at the UNC-Chapel Hill’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media and is the retired founding director of the school’s Carolina Community Media Project. The author of six books, Jock is also the winner of the 1998 National Geographic Magazine Faculty Fellowship, among his many accolades

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