The Other Notebook
by David Helwig
The plump little boy, just over a year old, sits on a picnic blanket, a sand shovel in his right hand, a bucket in his left, his round face framed by a sun hat. The blanket is spread on thin grass growing in sand. The boy looks toward the camera, his expression a little questioning, almost confrontational. Beside him sits his mother, wearing pink summer blouse and shorts, smiling, her bare legs curled under her. There is some resemblance between the two, the directness, the somewhat hooded eyes. The photograph is in colour, but examined closely, it reveals that it is a black and white original, hand-tinted, a slightly pastel effect. The sun is shining on the mother and child as they pose for the lens. The photograph has been mounted in a wooden frame hinged to a wooden stand designed to be set on a flat surface to display the family portrait. Old-fashioned, you’d say, and you might be able to guess the date, at least approximately.
No need to guess. On the back of the photograph is written a date in the summer of 1939, and the plump little boy is me, my proud mother then in her early thirties. It normally stands on top of a chest of drawers that holds my socks and T-shirts. Twenty years ago when I was emptying out my parents’ house after my mother’s death, I put this photograph with the things I intended to keep. It isn’t a brilliant or striking picture, though the effect of the hand-tinted colours gives it a particular aura. It’s a good picture of my young mother, though it’s not a version of fat-little-me that I much like.
Most days I see the picture without noticing it. Places we live are full of things like that. But recently I was reading about the political developments that led to the Hitler war, and was suddenly reminded that in the summer days when that plump little boy dug in the sand of a Canadian beach with his tin shovel, Europe was preparing itself for war. France, Britain, Russia and Germany were involved in both public and secret negotiations, and the outcome, late in August, was the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. A German-Russian alliance. Within days of the signing of the pact, German armies attacked Poland.
As my mother and I sit in the hot sunlight, the pieces are put in place for six years of war. By the time that war is over, I will be seven years old, able to read the newspaper stories about the Allied march to victory. I first developed a sense of the world and its history during those years of World War II. My father worked at de Havilland aircraft; everything from radio drama to the comic strips told war stories. Years later I noticed how often the fiction I wrote had plots with some reference to that war, the central myth of my childhood.
Do children still grow into a shared history? One generation of no-longer-young Americans was defined by Vietnam and the civil rights movement. Imagine that this very morning a thirteen year old notices a family photo taken in the autumn of 2001. Will that child, decades from now, look back at the picture and think about the attack on the World Trade Centre? Fifty years from today, what historic events will be recalled? Maybe in the digital world all information about the past is equally significant—and therefore insignificant. Though the formalities of diplomacy have been largely swept away, and we no longer declare war, wars go on, without end, it sometimes appears. Perhaps in fifty years what will be remembered by history is a kind of storm that proved to be the precursor of cataclysmic environmental change.
Every child is born into a new universe. That fat little boy who is me looks out of the past into a world that will never be the same again.