As I research and write this book, I am taking a deep dive into all manner of personal documents, family books and photographs.
So many photographs…
Here is a photograph I rediscovered that shows my father holding me in his right arm while cupping the chin of my older sister Mindy with his left hand.
The photograph was taken in the driveway of the bi-level house in Havertown (a suburb of Philadelphia) where I lived for the 10+ years of my life.
Before I get to the mathematical impossibility in this photograph, just bear with me while I dwell for a moment on the sartorial elegance of my sister’s high socks and “Madeline” jacket, as well as on the truly excellent shirt my father is wearing. Eat your heart out, Rat Pack. Lou Berger had some style of his own!
My father would be 31 in this picture, and his hair has not yet turned the distinguished silvery-gray I remember. He looks so young and happy…but I digress.
This is a moment where I wished I knew more about cars, because I am curious about the two red cars visible in the background. The red car in the adjacent driveway looks like it could be a convertible, but it is hard to tell.
If any reader can identify the make and model of these cars, please do so in the Comments section below.
Now…if you look carefully at the top of the photograph, my mother (I would know that handwriting anywhere) has helpfully written:
“Matt 4 mos. Mindy 5 ½”
When I first read that annotation, I thought, “Great, this will help me pinpoint fairly precisely when this photograph was taken.”
Until I started doing the math, that is.
This is what I mean:
I was born in late September 1966, and Mindy was born in early March 1962.
I would have been four months old in February 1967.
The problem is that Mindy would have been almost, but not quite five years old, in February 1967…not 5½.
So let’s try it the other way.
Assuming that “5½” means somewhere between 5¼ and 5¾, that would place this scene between June and December 1967. I would have been somewhere between nine and 15 months old during that period of time.
The fact is, both of the ages written on this photograph cannot be true. Either only one of them is true, or neither of them is true.
The photograph itself yields some clues.
First, look at the tree in the upper left-hand corner of the photograph. It has no leaves, which means that it is sometime in the winter, after the leaves have fallen off all of the trees.
That eliminates the possibility that this photograph was taken between June and, say, October 1967.
Leaving February 1967 and November 1967 as the remaining possibilities, assuming at least one of the annotated ages is correct.
Second, there is the clothing. Putting aside my very cozy looking outerwear (implying colder weather; would you call it a “coverall?”) for a second, while Mindy and my father are both wearing winter coats, my father’s is not buttoned. Neither is he wearing a hat of any kind, although both Mindy and I have our heads covered. And Mindy’s legs are bare except for the high socks.
My dim recollection is that my father, just as I am now, was not particularly bothered by the cold. My wife will shiver and say, “It’s cold,” and I will respond, “I know. It feels good.”
Still, I would argue that the same temperature can feel much warmer as spring approaches (warm by comparison to what you had been feeling) and much colder as winter approaches (colder by comparison to what you had been feeling).
If true, that would seem to eliminate November 1967 as the time this photograph was taken. Even my impervious-to-cold father would likely have had his fairly light overcoat buttoned in November.
Third, there is the fact that my father is holding me. While this is far from conclusive, the fact that I am being held (other than the obvious fact that it would be hard to walk in those bundled-up feet) suggests that I am not yet able to walk, which would be the case if I were four months old.
And if I could at least stand up on my own then, I might not be wearing that particular coverall.
Finally, there is this simple fact: after five or six years of reproductive heartache and the birth of a severely retarded daughter, I was adopted in the late summer/early fall of 1966.
Do you really think my mother would not have known EXACTLY how old I was, especially when it was only a matter of months and days?
The cnclusion, then, is that my age is correct: I am four months old, and it is February 1967. That would fit with the leafless tree and the outerwear. And it is just possible that all snow would have melted by then (or it was not a snowy winter, which it does not appear to have been). The weather for Wednesday, February 15 (sunny, high of 52 degrees) and Thursday, February 16 (light rain, high of 52) is suggestive as well.
If that is the case, then why did my mother record Mindy’s age as “5½?”
I have a possible explanation.
Mindy turned five years old in early March 1967. If this is February 1967, perhaps even late in February 1967, then it is very close to Mindy’s 5th birthday. But my mother has likely been calling Mindy “4½” for six months or so.
Could my mother have simply conflated the impending 5th birthday with the “½” she had been adding for a few months. It would be a little like writing a check in January and getting the year correct while still writing “December.”
As far as I am concerned, then, this evocative photograph of my still-missed father, Mindy and me was taken sometime in February 1967, most likely on the 15th or 16th.
Until next time…