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from the Estate of RH Euston

from the Estate of RH Euston

LATE AFTERNOON

A picture in faded sepia. A father and two boys stand behind a great green prickly pear cactus, the boy’s faces full of sun, graced with a  shimmer of security and contentment.  The father, well, a father’s firm gaze looks straight into the camera lens.  The day is lazily, autumnally hazy. The blight of smog has yet to suffocate the Los Angles Basin. It’s a warm late afternoon. It’s Sunday. The resinous smell of an old eucalyptus tree mingles with the scent of  nearby chaparral.

Though the picture is now almost three quarters of a century old, I know the setting and the time: the La Crescenta Valley, at the base of the San Gabriel Mountains, when in 1944 a few vineyards still survived on terraces and when in the deep mauve of sundown I heard dogs barking, that domestic call echoing across the valley, breaking an almost rural quietude

But the  year is 1944. Around the world the greatest war is in its most fateful stage. But for one hundredth of a second, the world in one tiny spot on earth is at peace.

My father and my brother are gone years ago. My father from ripe old age. He and I walk  for a last time, in Spring, carefully, slowly rounding the gentle curve of the San Diego mobile home park, while I point out and name every kind of flower and tree that I can. He seems to understand, maybe, I think, from the smell of jasmine and lemon. Is this his last taste, his last smell, his last seeing of the natural world around which so much of his life revolved? Days later he lies unconscious in a white bed in San Diego Kaiser Hospital,  intravenous vines twining around his pale arms. He finally sleeps, and soon joins the infinity of the Pacific Ocean, as he wished.

My brother brightens the picture with the innocence of an Andy Hardy movie character, with stocky frame, short sleeves and wavy hair, his smile that of a buoyant teenager in the 1940s who runs track and wears a letterman’s sweater with golden track shoes pined to a big “G”, who edites the high school newspaper, who wins blistering towel fights with his little unarmed sibling, my brother who graduates from UCLA Phi Beta Kappa, serves as a second Lieutenant in the peace time army, and who talks and writesabout high adventure. But in adult life he chooses to live close to home, work in Los Angeles, travels about the world. His life closes very near home.

I alone remain, putting memory to work, to find the direction of the past in the ravines and hills of the mind. The “I” is not the boy of seven standing before the cactus, suspenders rounding the shoulders, in love with this magic afternoon. But in the picture the “I” of that certain afternoon has come to life for a moment in this very present. That one hundredth of a second of camera time has brought life to a long ago moment in the life of a family, of a place called Southern California, at the cusp of its great transition into the world of the present. Its shimmering, beckoning autumnal imprint has traveled those long halls of memory to a far distant vanishing point. Thus the magic of that quicksilver, evanescent click of the shudder.    SRE

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