I RECENTLY chanced upon the photograph above, in a 1922 book called The Anthropology of Florida, published by the State’s Historical Association. It was one of a few gems within the book that were all the more delightful for coming so unexpected; nothing about the dry-looking publication even hinted that anything truly interesting might await inside its covers. Yet sometimes I take a look, just in case…
I flipped a page, and saw this picture looking back out at me. Something about it grabbed me. It’s a fascinating thing, the way photographs work; there is nothing “static” about the encounter. Where first I’d caught a glimpse only of indistinct “Seminole Indian,” as I took a closer look I saw emerging a portrait of father and son (or so I now imagine to be the case), that had been there all along. And as I paused for a moment to more carefully consider, and better “see,” something in the father’s expression and bearing, in relationship to his son’s, bespoke to me that universal ideal of fatherhood, that most natural and highest and most noble of impulses: the devout wish that one’s son might have a bigger and better life, perhaps more enriching and alive with possibilities, than has been his own.
Or, put another way, a wish from deep in one’s gut (often expressed as a sigh) that the world were a better place: a place more “open” and fair, more just and safe, closer to free of liars and their lies, of cutting hatred or disfiguring racial assumption. This young man of 1922, mirroring exactly his father’s posture yet called upon to wear the buttoned-up clothing of a culture not his own, straddles impossibly two very different worlds, and no one would be more keenly aware of the perils in the gap between them than his father.
Just guessing from the picture, if the boy is around 17, his year of birth would have been about 1905, and his father’s in turn sometime between the 1870’s and 1880’s. To a certainty, the young man’s grandfathers, and quite probably his great-grandfathers as well, would have been called to active duty on behalf of their People, forced into battle for their liberty and freedom and the lands that had become their home. Their lives would have been truncated by that seemingly endless on-again/ off-again white aggression beginning in 1817 and ending at last only in 1855, a shameful historical passage sanitized in today’s schoolbooks as the “Seminole Indian Wars.” The father here would have been born shortly after the last of the declared “wars,” but certainly known his own boyhood in its very long and dark shadow.
Yet in his eyes, I see only calm dignity, and openness. And maybe, hope?
Breaking Home Ties Norman Rockwell
The painting is a great one, in my view, because it says so much, so truly. (Note that in the painting the old man is holding in his hands, along with his own, the boy’s hat. It is all he can do for him. When time for good-bye comes, any minute, one of the simple and heart-rending acts taken will be to place it tenderly and proudly on the young man’s head, a father’s wordless blessing.)
Our circumstances are all quite unique, but we tend to forget or overlook the great and human ties that bind us all. Maybe we would all be much enriched, and feel considerably less alone, if we were able to better remember.