One by one, Kate picks up photographs from the piles of mostly black-and-white shots strewn around her on her parents’ beige bedroom carpet, some of them torn or bent. They look like mixed up decks of playing cards revealing much younger versions of Kate. Like a detective, she holds up a large magnifying glass to each, looking for clues, insight into that long-ago person.
She came across the pictures in her mother’s bottom dresser drawer following her recent death, orphaned pieces of a blurry past. Some are duplicates from scrapbooks her mother kept, while others are unfamiliar, even the people appearing alongside Kate. Who was this? she asks aloud, squinting at the smiling girl with her same Dutch Girl haircut, an arm intimately slung across Kate’s shoulder. A camp friend? Someone from church? One of her little sister’s friends? An older brother’s long lost girlfriend? No idea.
What strikes her most about the images is how active, how unselfconscious, unposed she looks. In one, she’s been caught mid hip-swivel as she twirls an orange hula hoop around her young hips, her arms at shoulder length and at a ninety-degree angle to propel her hips and to avoid interfering in the spinning. A contest had been held that evening in her town to see who could last the longest without letting the hoop fall. Kate was determined to win, her tired eyes closing from time to time as the night wore on.
In others, she’s at a beach, Jones Beach on Long Island near her grandparents’ home in Bronxville, New York. Various shots show young Kate building a sandcastle with her siblings, running into the waves, hugging her grandfather. In a close-up picture at the same beach she’s wearing a yellow and black one-piece ruched swimming suit. She has stood still long enough to have her picture taken, her legs shoulder width apart in a confident stance, her hair partially blown into her face, her flat chest thrust out unselfconsciously, arms open wide, welcoming whatever life has to offer. In this last shot she looks eager to resume what she was doing, but smiles for the camera, looking happy, carefree. Thinking back to those annual Jones Beach outings, Kate remembers her grandmother always prepared a picnic of deviled ham sandwiches for everyone, and they drank red cream soda, a treat.
In other photos Kate is back home in Missouri, perched on top of the blue tractor her father mowed their lawn with, or doing a cartwheel in their backyard, both while wearing her favorite red cotton shorts. In another she’s laughing with a friend, her mouth agape, bits of food visible. Some show her at the local swimming pool, splashing friends, or climbing the ladder to jump off the high dive, or enjoying a hamburger, French fries, and her favorite Zero candy bar in the snack shop.
Leaning against her parents’ bed, Kate remembers this young girl as though looking through a foggy lens at a distant cousin, one whose knees were constantly scraped and scabbed, whose hair often looked windblown and uncombed, someone who played and ran and swam and danced and climbed and tumbled and twirled every which way. Was that really Kate?
She remembers that this younger version of herself would not have cared that her midriff showed as she twirled her hula hoop, or worried that she looked foolish swinging her hips round and round for an audience that summer evening. Nor would she have cared — or known — how much she weighed in her ruched swimming suit at Jones Beach, or wondered if she looked fat as she ran into the waves or built her sandcastle. Nor would she have known — or been interested in — how many calories were in the deviled ham sandwich and cream soda her grandmother packed for their picnic.
Doing cartwheels or sitting on her father’s tractor in her faded red shorts wouldn’t have caused her to question if the shorts made her legs look fat, or to obsess about how tightly or loosely they fit. And she would never have wondered how best to burn off the calories from the hamburger, fries and candy bar she wolfed down at the swimming pool, or to worry that people were assessing her body critically as she splashed in the water, or to consider the possibly unflattering view from below as she climbed the steep ladder to jump off the high dive.
This was all a language Kate didn’t yet speak. Back then she was still happy with her body, with the space it occupied in the world, with all it could do, not with how it looked. But in ten short years — fewer? — that would all change: clothes would be picked for their ability to camouflage or help her fit in, not to cause her joy. The bathroom scale would become her constant companion and enemy. Calories would be tallied daily. Pictures would no longer be spontaneous or action shots, but would be carefully posed, angles strategically chosen. There would be no goofy looks, no expressions caught off guard, unflattering poses, mid-activity captures. None of that. Control would be the watchword.
How — when? — did that metamorphosis happen, Kate wonders, picking up the last of the photographs from her mother’s stash, one where she’s hamming for the camera with her little cousins. When did her body change from being the means to an end, to the end itself? What she would give to go back to those days of using her body to joyfully move through life. But she has no map. And, closing the lid of the box where she has put the loose photos, she glances down at the baggy pants and formless top she’s wearing, and it occurs to her that she needs to lose a few pounds, buy more flattering clothes soon. What would her mother say if she were still alive? That Kate has let herself go.