Add Pictures from Our Vacation to the list of apparently flammable materials which you cannot often handle without a warrant, and then only under the supervision of highly trained librarians. Oliver Button Is a Sissy. William’s Doll. The Day the Babies Crawled Away! “Non-circulating” is how such collections are amazingly described in the institutional vernacular, as though preserving them anywhere in test tubes and basements and panic rooms is likely to one day result in their glorious renaissance. I’m sorry. Here’s a beef. Even a mission, when I’m feeling megalomaniacal. If nothing else constructive is ever accomplished with this dubious endeavor you see before you, the possibility that one or two books may eventually be released from their climate-controlled purgatory should be enough to sustain me through the self-loathing autumn of my life. Because if you set down any one of these covers amid the feng shui atmospherics of your average front table at Barnes and Noble, the rest would take care of itself. Like those tropical vines and predatory toads for which they are always checking my luggage at Customs. Like those big-headed, invincible carp racing up the Mississippi and pouring past electrical barriers into Lake Michigan and beyond.
Anyway. Pictures: The story begins with a family loading a car with separate luggage and expectations. A girl’s mother thoughtfully provides her and her brother with a couple of Instamatics (remember those?) to record their personal highlights from a trip that is initially confined between the sort of featureless interstate and desultory motel that tends to set your mind wandering in a lot of impractical directions. (The motel is re-imagined as a series of cottages containing small jungles and aquariums and planetariums.) When they finally arrive at their grandparents’, the house is alive with fond memories for the father, though it’s otherwise mostly a graveyard of dusty old furniture and broken badminton racquets for the kids. It rains. Even the old lake is impossible to find through the trees which have overgrown its sightlines. The girl takes a picture of a hill which could be any hill, and a squirrel-ravaged takeout container, Chinese noodles spilling out. The rain turns into a deluge.
“I asked our mom, “Can we do something fun tomorrow?’
“She said, ‘Well, actually, we have to go to a memorial service.’”
“’Do I have to wear a dress?’”
Perhaps you think you’ve read this story before (or you have lived it), and the sun will come out (which it does), and all anyone will ever care about in the end is the good stuff - and perhaps you would be right. Still, it’s all of the little off-ramps and seemingly insignificant detours which makes this story memorable, at least by the current standards of the form. Sharing shelter from a storm with a family of foreign speaking fishermen in a gazebo on a dock. A memorial for their great-Aunt Charlotte, whom they have never met, who learned to fly a plane, and once chained herself to a tree that was going to be bulldozed. Bird’s-eye maps. An insect called a “walking stick.” Those alternative motels. There are no shortcuts here, or bootstrap reformations; in the end the only lesson is awareness - foggy and incremental as that seems. On the trip returning home, the girl spots, and snaps a picture of, some tall electrical towers which they must have seen coming in, only now they look like “giant robots marching across the earth, carrying the electricity along in their hands.” This is the gift of an active imagination of course, but it doesn’t come cheaply, or it doesn’t come at all, if we rely on the scenery to provide the entertainment. Says the girl in the car, drifting off:
“Maybe we need better cameras.”