#8 of 52 : TAMMY
External Photo Clues:
I was born in 1929 in the NE corner of the state of Oklahoma. My dad was a McDonnell and he traveled to St. Louis and back all the time for the McDonnell Aircraft Corporation. He was very devout and didn’t want his wife and daughter growing up in such a big city so he kept us on the farm. It wasn’t like a real farm, more like a country house, with a little pond and some trees. My mother wasn’t about to keep a farm, but she could keep a house and instructed me in all kind of Victorian parlor nonsense until the winter of 1942 when she died of pneumonia.
The depression and the war didn’t really touch me. For me, WWII was fantastic. I traveled with my father all over the country. The soldiers and pilots I met were all handsome, everyone petted me, and in my foolishness, I thought war was just grand. I even got to go to Washington DC when my dad met with the president. I didn’t get to meet him myself, but I was there all the same. I was 16 on V-E Day and in St. Louis kissing and dancing with everyone else.
My dad was awfully busy during the war years, perhaps a little too busy to watch out for me. By 1947, he had left the country house and all pretenses of pious living back in Oklahoma. He noticed I was grown, and decided to get me a chaperone/tutor/governess to get me ready for college. I was 18 and full of my own charm. I’ve had some kind of companion ever since.
Mrs. Jackson was the first. She was a well-educated war widow who had the good fortune not to get pregnant before her young husband went off to die fighting the Imperial Japanese Army. Only five years older than me, Mrs. Jackson had a degree in art from Bryn Mawr and had come to St. Louis from the East at the behest of a sorority sister to work in the museum.
She’s the one who took the picture of me in the arms of the war memorial.
It was right before the biggest event ever to hit St. Louis. Mrs. Jackson was over the moon because Guernica was coming to the museum. It had been traveling all over the United States ever since the end of The Great War, and now it was coming to us.
I had been to plenty of openings with Mrs. Jackson before, but this one was unprecedented. I didn’t know a thing about the painting, but I knew everything about the famous lothario Picasso and Hemingway and the Spanish Civil War. For me, it was all so romantic and foreign and not real – like something out of a fairy tale – or out of a Hemingway novel. I got to the museum early to help Mrs. Jackson with the event. We both thought I looked so pretty we went outside to take a picture while the light was still good. I loved soldiers and I loved art – so I hopped right up onto the bronze and flashed my signature pose – teeth and all.
You couldn’t stir the people with a spoon it was so thick that night. It was almost impossible to see the damn painting at all, but I pushed and flirted my way to the front, then asked Mrs. Jackson to take my picture beside it. I stuck my hip out, shook my hair and put on my best, big smile.
“Why are you smiling?”
I whipped my head towards the anonymous growl. “Excuse me?” I stammered somewhere between a blush and a gasp.
“Why are you smiling?” A man stepped forward, his dead eyes locked onto mine. His suit was dark gray like his teeth, and his forehead was smooth and hard. “What is there to smile about?”
“I don’t…” I started.
And he just stared at me. Disgusted. Like he wanted to snuff me out, or blow me away like the ash he so clearly resembled.
I couldn’t move; the whole room felt suddenly quiet. I turned to the painting in slow motion. When I turned back around, he had disappeared into the crowd. Mrs. Jackson just looked at me with her mouth slightly open. I turned back to the painting as embarrassed laughter and twittering filled the air. The brief moment was over, perhaps unnoticed by anyone but the three of us.
For the first time in my silly, sheltered life – I saw it. I saw the waste and death and generations of pain. Not the bronze charade I had leaned into outside – but the real death, the guts, the blood and the skulls. The great mouth of war devouring souls. What I had idolized outside and romanticized in books was not found in this mural. How could I stand smiling in front of it – wanting my picture recorded – wanting this moment preserved forever? War was not heroic, it was not strength, it was not victory. That bronze and the girl in front of it was a lie. Guernica was the truth, and the truth was nothing to smile about.
Looking at this picture now, my breath still catches hard in my stomach. I’m embarrassed for my teenage self. For all the jokes and laughs I had during the war. Ashamed of the war that I idolized, the war that built my family a huge fortune, the war that kept the world free from tyranny.
In my more forgiving moments, I try to think about the need for us to fight that war, to equip those fighters, and to smile and shine when they came home. I think of two different ways to express war in art. But then I compare the false idealism of the bronze figure and the smiling fool in front of it with the truth of the mural that changed my life and I know that war is never idealistic – or something to smile about.
About The Author:
Melissa Scaramucci has worked in production on several OK feature films and commercials in addition to her community work with deadCENTER and the Norman Arts Council. She lives with her family in Norman, OK.
About The Imaginary Family Project:
The 2011 Imaginary Family Project is a year-long collective art endeavor coordinated by occasional amateur artist Quentin Bomgardner and co-sponsored by The Red Dirt Chronicles. This project is based around “lost” vintage photographs, which have been acquired at flea markets, garage sales, estate sales, and eBay – heirloom collections, with no heir. Every week a different author will “find” one photograph by creating an imagined history around one of its subjects. At the end of the year, the collection will be compiled and presented as a group.