Seeing pictures of people you know only in their adult form as small children or babies is an uncanny sort of terrain. In the true meaning of unheimlich, there is something familiar about their sometimes pudgy baby faces, something that you recognize from their grown-up faces, while at the same time, something completely alien. In pictures of family, there is that added dimension that comes from the fact that childhood and babyhood seem to boil us all down to essential familial appearances. We don’t quite see this when we look at our own baby albums, because of course we can trace those changes in our faces – my face at 10 is quite recognizable to me as being mine. However, a good friend who saw a picture of a 10-year-old me hanging over my desk recently had no idea he was looking at a picture of me.
This picture of my grandmother Dione is one of those sorts of images. Obviously, because she is my grandma, I can recognize or at least deduce that this is her at maybe 3 or 4, but this little peanut does not bear a lot of resemblance to the lovely grandmother I know now. However, seeing little Dione is like putting a name to a face, for even though she doesn’t look completely familiar as someone I’ve met before, she is definitely familiar as someone I have heard a lot about. There is the story about the visit to Aunt Margaret’s farm in San Ysidro, a reprieve from city and suburban life and a definite educational experience wherein Dione saw how many bugs were crawling all over the growing vegetables and was so disgusted, she refused to eat any vegetables for weeks. This is not really something I can picture the Dione I know doing, but I can imagine this little Dione doing so perfectly. Hearing stories like this one, which has to be one of my favorite examples of the sheltered city childhoods and childhood whims, I used to try to picture the scenario in my head but couldn’t imagine my little grandmother correctly. It was never as cartoony as when my first grade teacher told us about how she used to hide under her parents’ weeping willow trees to read, and I pictured her middle-aged face perched like a bobble-head on a little body wearing a sailor outfit (and hat!), but still. One needs to know all the pieces and all the faces of a person to be able to reconcile them with their past selves, or your picture will always be somewhat distorted.
Now that I know this particular little face better, I am better able to imagine one of my very favorite conversations of all time. Dione, in approximately the year this photograph was taken, was told she was going to be a big sister. When asked, “would you like a brother or a sister?” she replied “I want a dog that smiles.” She ended up getting a sister instead of a bulldog and her wish for a smiling dog wasn’t granted until much later, when she found herself with Alfie the Airedale that smiled (a story for another day).