My mother has been going through old slides. "What do we do with all of these," she said, meaning the 20 or more antique-looking metal boxes stored at the top of the closet in my old room at home. Most of these had been fixtures in the closet for as long as I can remember. Each box, a paper label fixed tenuously with yellowed tape, had a cursory jotting of a place-name or two and dates. There was no logic behind either cataloging or labeling and one box might read, "Rome 1962" and "Jerusalem 1966" and "England '75." Once, perhaps, years ago, we'd taken out a tank of an old slide projector and looked at some scenes, overexposed, familiar faces squinting and smiling against a backdrop of notable classical antiquities, but most have never left their boxes.
The other day, my mother handed me about 12 slides and asked if I could "make pictures out of them." They were of, I suppose, an important occasion, at least to my parents: my baptism, and attending scenes, in Jerusalem. The fact of this event was often mentioned to me over the years, as though it was supposed to be momentous for me, give me some defining insight. But no particular details stuck in my mind from the repeated tellings (and I'd never seen anything of the actual trip) except the bare cast of characters: me, my parents, "the Archbishop," and a kindly nun who took a liking to me. That and the fact that a bus load of German tourists evidently filmed the proceedings (which took place in a row boat in the Jordan River) from the shore. No documentation of that mind-boggling scene exists in our collection unfortunately, most likely because my father, who does not swim, was afraid of dropping the camera. Of the slides we do have of that expedition, this one, above, struck me immediately. Its far more spontaneous and ... exhilarating than any of the others. There I am, a comically oversized infant, surely larger by half than any local child-- unwitting emissary of the American Good Life; a triumph of vitamin-enriched formula and fluoridated water. But its the kindly nun— that kindly nun—looking ancient and very foreign and captivating in her black garb, that is the center point of that image.
Many years after that photo was taken my aunt, on a tour of the Holy Land, stopped in at this convent. She told my mother that she'd inquired after the kindly nun but was told she was "on vacation." It was only later we realized, in the amazing and somehow beautiful elision of that reply, that the nun had died.