Age and Youth
by Joe Sweeney
As a young boy I loved to explore. Some of my favorite places were the attics of old houses. There was a seemingly unending trove of treasures to be found in the houses of my relatives in New Hampshire. My grandmother's house was a large 3- story colonial with a large attic. Even though I was told I should not go up there, I spent many hours during my vacations in that dusty place.
When I was 15, we took our family vacation earlier than usual. It was right after school towards the end of May. There wasn't much to do this year since none of my cousins were around. My dad's other brothers and sisters moved away as soon as they could, just like we did, and unless we planned our visits to Grandmother's together, there wasn't anyone else to hang around with. It was just as well, though. I got to do a lot of exploring. I told my dad I wanted to learn more about his side of the family and what better way to do it than to look at old photo albums and stuff from my grandmother's past. He liked that answer and told me that he was glad I took in interest in the family history.
I explored every nook and cranny of that old attic and found some really neat old books and newspapers. Some of them mentioned my grandmother and one even said there was an article inside about her being a very pretty girl, which had been cut out and was missing. I had never thought of my grandmother as pretty -- how many young boys do?
With more exploring I found a loose board in the floor. Lifting it up I found an old photo album. I could tell it had been carefully wrapped in cloth and looked like it had not been touched in a long, long time.
As I carefully opened it up I saw writing on the first page. "The Prettiest Girl in Madison County" it said. I gasped with amazement as I turned the page. There was a picture of what had to indeed be the prettiest girl anywhere in the world. Her eyes drew me in and the expression on her face transfixed me for what seemed like hours. As I turned page after page, I couldn't help being more amazed with each picture. Surely this photographer was an exceptional artist.
The last several pages were stuck together and I was afraid I would destroy the pictures if I pried them too hard. As I was looking closer at them, I heard girlish laughter coming from somewhere close. I looked around but could see no one. However I saw a light coming from under a door that I had not noticed before. I put the photo album down and crossed over to the door. It opened easily onto a patio surrounded by a high hedge. I did not remember any place like this around my grandmother's house. I heard a girl say "Hi" and I turned to see the girl in the pictures staring at me. I couldn't believe my eyes. She was a little older than me, but it had to be her. The eyes, the face, the smile, they were exactly the same as in the pictures.
"Do you want to see the pictures on those last pages?" she asked. I said it really didn't matter, because seeing her in person was even more beautiful than the pictures. She blushed and said, "Those last pages contain some special pictures that no one has ever seen. You seemed to appreciate the others more than most, so I have decided to let you see me the way those last ones were taken." I think I stammered as I said, "But you are so beautiful, how could those others be so much different than what I see now?"
With that she smiled and moved back a few steps. She turned away from me and I could see she was doing something to the front of her dress. Suddenly her dress fell from her and she stood there perfectly naked, I was staring at a perfect back, waist, hips and legs. Then she turned around and no picture of her could have done justice. There was no other word to describe her but 'Beautiful'. She stood there and let me gaze at her for just a minute, then handed me an old time camera and motioned for me to take her picture. I finally overcame my awe and after a little bit of messing with the camera, I understood how it worked. I asked her how she wanted to pose and she told me that she didn't like posing, but that I should take her picture any way I wanted to while she walked around the patio. I said that first I wanted to take a panorama of pictures circling her with her holding a rose in her hands. I took a lot of pictures. First I took the panorama series, then of her stretching to water the flowers, then of her sitting on the grass looking into the distance, and many others. We both realized at the same time that it was getting dark. She stepped into her dress and put it on as I took the last picture of her. Then she took the camera from me and said she wanted a picture of me to remember this day. She smiled as I blushed and that is how she took the picture, me standing there still in awe and red as a beet.
I went back through the door and closed it and went over to the photo album. It lay opened to last page I had looked at. I picked it up and looked back at the door. I was shocked to find that the door was gone. All that remained was a wall covered with cobwebs and dust. I looked back at the album and decided to see if I cold get the last pages un-stuck. To my amazement, they opened easily. I turned the first one and sat stunned. There were my photos, the panoramic ones, the ones of her stretching to water the flowers, sitting on the grass - all of them that I had just taken. She was even more beautiful in these than in the others in the album. There was an old faded newspaper article that I could barely read. It mentioned my grandmother's name and said she was the prettiest girl at the Madison County spring dance. Unfolding the fragile paper, I saw her picture. I felt as if I had been hit in the chest. It was the girl in the photos. It said she was my grandmother! The paper was dated May 1, 1925. I sat there stunned. What had just happened? Did I really take those pictures or had I just fallen asleep and dreamed it? I couldn't quite put it all together in my mind. I started to get up, but heard a noise behind me. I looked up and saw my grandmother smiling down at me.
"I knew you would find that book today", she said as she settled in an old rocker beside me. "It was 65 years ago today that a young artist came through a solid wall and took pictures of me naked on my patio. I never told anyone about that day and that is why I glued those pages together."
I showed her the album and she smiled pleasantly when she noticed that the pages were no longer stuck together. "Did you find the last picture?" she asked. I said I didn't know which one she meant, so she pulled one from between the lining of the cover and handed it to me. I looked at it and simply said, "How is this possible?" She smiled at me and said, "You are the artist, the photographer. Only you can answer that." I looked again at the picture. It was the picture the girl took of me. Even though it was in black and white, I could see the blushing face and the awkwardness that I felt only a short time ago.
"You may keep that one and one other picture.", she said. I looked at them all and then picked up the last one I took of her, with her dress just below her hips, that unforgettable smile on her face. "It is to remind you that beauty is ageless and that you must always look at beauty the way you did today. You did not see a naked girl. You saw a beautiful girl who happened to be naked." With that she got out of her chair and went downstairs. I looked through the pictures again before wrapping the album in the cloth and replacing it between the floorboards. Carefully fitting the last board back in place, I dusted off my hands and looked at my two pictures again. When I looked back at the floor, there was no trace of the loose board. I don't need to go back and look for it again, though. I have every picture I took of her, and many more, still fresh in my mind. I just have to look at the one I picked out and the whole afternoon comes flooding back, each minute carefully preserved, just like the photo album.