“I have something special for you,” my dad said, his eyes crinkling in that playful way I loved.
Delighted, I followed him to his den, the hallowed space where he spent all his free time. He was a collector. A Renaissance man, he liked to say. He loved to be alone in that room surrounded by classic novels, model aircraft, and his prized stereo system; everything that defined him as a person within easy reach. There he’d sit with the door closed and his headphones on, vinyl spinning for hours, while my mother stewed privately in the kitchen.
My dad pulled something down from the top of the closet with a flourish. Black and blocky, it was made of shiny Bakelite plastic studded with gray knobs and buttons, a strappy, plastic handle looped over the top.
“It’s a brownie camera,” he said, and my seven-year-old ears instantly perked up. It didn’t look like any of his other cameras, with their compact, rectangular bodies and central snout. “Don’t hold it up to your eye,” he explained, “hold it low and look down into the viewfinder like this.”
He handed me the camera. I held it awkwardly, trying to figure out where to put my fingers. He promised to take me out and teach me how to use it that weekend. He showed me how to load the film. He explained aperture, shutter speed, and film speed — how just the right amount of light falling on the sensor would reveal an image full of nuanced color, highlights, and shadow, both illuminating and withholding in equal measure. I nodded, understanding half the words and none of what they meant. All I cared about was going on an adventure with my dad.
The next Saturday, we set off for the city. First, though, we had to make a quick stop. I fidgeted as my dad led me into a tall building, up an elevator, and into a tidy apartment full of big windows and plants. My dad handed me a stack of books from home while he helped his friend with something or other. I ran my hand over the sleek furnishings, so different from our tatty jumble of flea market finds. I sat on the couch, which wasn’t as comfortable as it looked. I read through all my books twice.
Finally, we made it to the National Arboretum where we took pictures of jewel-toned tulips and cotton-candy cherry blossoms tossing confetti into the breeze. Another time, we wandered along the Chesapeake Bay, where I was delighted by miniature tugboats, and my dad took panoramic shots of the sweeping arc of the harbor. In the fall, we drove out past the Maryland tobacco fields to Shenandoah Valley to see the autumn leaves explode across the horizon, fiery waves of sunset under a sea blue sky.
When we got home, my dad reminded me how to rewind and unload the film — very carefully — to prevent the blinding light of day from erasing the memories we had painted so deliberately in its absence. I dropped the spool into a little plastic canister and pressed the cap on tightly. We filled out big orange envelopes at the pharmacy with bead-chained pens, sealed them up, and dropped them into the slot at the Kodak kiosk where, presumably, underground elves were waiting to unveil and revel in our masterpieces.
A week later, we picked up our envelopes and tore them open. My dad was giddy as he flipped through his stack of glossy prints, postcard-perfect, each one a glimpse of forgotten treasure. But my own excitement fizzled as snapshot after snapshot proved unrecognizably blurry or poorly lit. I couldn’t hold the camera still enough or straight enough to get the subject in focus. Finally, I came across one, slightly askew but clearly rendered: My dad smiling in profile as he placed a flower behind a woman’s ear, long black hair framing her Mona Lisa face.
I showed the photograph to my dad, shyly pining for praise. He stared at it for a long time with an expression I didn’t recognize. He asked if he could keep it. My heart twinged at the thought of giving up my best and only image of my dad. But he knew I always did what he asked.
Soon afterwards, we moved back to New England, and my photography lessons ended as abruptly as they began.