Saturday, December 10, 2016

Uncle Lucian Dean and The Alligator Selfie

November is archive month in our family. It’s that time when we sort through old analogue photos and digitize a selection to put into a digitally reproduced bound book. It’s an important yearly ritual, and an extension of the tradition of All Soul’s Day, especially since many of the people in the photos are long gone. This year my parents and I are going through some of the photos that became displaced in the chaotic process of moving from Cactus Lake Saskatchewan to their retirement home in Okotoks Alberta.
It’s always amazing to discover prints that you’ve never seen before that shed light on your family history and to look at old hairdos, clothing, cars and . . . alligators. I’d never seen this shot before of a man gently cradling a reptile.  The caption, written in pencil reads “myself and aligator”[sic]. My grandma May has written later in pen: “Uncle Lucian Dean lived in Washington State I think. My grandfather’s brother.”  It’s a lovely portrait in a dappled garden setting of a well-fed Victorian gentleman sporting a healthy tea strainer moustache. The critter looks more like a lizard than a gator, so the caption may be a tad whimsical. Perhaps Uncle Lucian was a bit of a joker.

When you sort through hundreds of photos you start to see patterns. I noticed that in many of our family photos one of us is cuddling some kind of critter, from alligators and snakes to ponies and a full-grown Canada goose. This behavior goes across gender divisions, but more usually it is a female of the human species who is holding the animal. My mom gets the award for cuddling the most creatures in the family photos. In one photo taken in 1953, she is holding a tiny baby rabbit. She has recently arrived in Cactus Lake to teach in the one room schoolhouse and the photographer is my dad, who has just fallen in love. You can tell from the photo how smitten he is. Mom’s lovely sparkling dark eyes are in focus, the rabbit is not. 

Here's a photo of mom a few years later cuddling a kitten. My dad's the smug looking dude on the left, because he's got the girl. My sweet uncle Don is to the right of mom, a gentle farmer like his father. Uncle Harlan is to to the right of him, the intellectual of the family.

This is a photo of mom and dad the year before I was born. Dad was most fond of his hunting dogs. Before I went to school, I would hanging out with dad and our dog Lunar in the truck making fuel deliveries to the farmers. Lunar had a drooling problem, but I tolerated him. I'd hop off and cuddle barn cats with my friends while dad filled the tanks and had coffee with the farmers.
This year I find myself drawn to two kinds of photos: the ones where the family member is being really silly, and the ones that show a family tradition of connecting with nature. There are quite a few photos of my sister and I cuddling kittens and cats, since we are both crazy about them, and have always had cats in our menagerie of childhood pets along with rabbits, dogs, and of course bees. People might say you can’t cuddle honeybees, but I beg to differ. I think one of the main reasons hobby beekeepers keep colonies of Apis melifera is because they are basically in love with handling bees, even though you usually need gloves to do it.

Here’s a picture of mom with two of her sisters, Muriel and Florence, on the family farm in Bounty, Saskatchewan. This was taken in the Dirty Thirties. All my mom and dad's childhood photos show the sere landscape of the drought-ridden prairies.

By contrast, this photo of my grandpa Clark's lush garden was taken earlier, probably in the late 1920's. My uncle Jack on the left became a geologist and my Aunt Mary, on his right, was a flying nurse in Northern Saskatchewan.

Here's a photo of Mary, circa 1945, cuddling a farm pup.

 And then there’s my favorite childhood photo. I am about three years old, and depriving a kitten of oxygen with my affection. Its eyes are looking glazed over as it suffers in my grasp. (By all reports, no kittens were actually harmed in the creation of this picture and the wee pussycat revived all after the photo was taken.) There is a strikingly similar photo of my mother taken at about the same age in the 1930’s. Once again, notice the dry landscape around her.

My aunt Florence in the 1950's is looking movie star glamorous in her kitten cuddling shot.

In a photo taken in the same era, my grandma Clark holds a leggy squirming kitten.

 This is a photo of me in my early 20’s in my “the more I know men, the more I love my cat” phase. I had a lot more luck with cats than men in those days, which is probably a good thing upon reflection.  I discovered feminism. And sublimation.

But before men there was Smokey the cat, then Sandy the bunny, and more cats: Sima, Rudolph, Percy, Betty and Crocker. As a side note, my dad shot at a skunk one night, thought he shot Rudolph by accident (as he was a black and white cat). But Rudolph came back from the dead one day, sauntering into our lives after a feral hiatus. As to the identity of that unfortunate skunk-like kitty, it remains a mystery to this day.

There can be a dark side to critter cuddling. When I was little I had the love and curiosity about creatures that was not always good news for them. There was a nest of robins in a tree at my paternal grandparents house. I could hear them chirping away, but couldn’t see them, so I took a stick and tried to tip the nest up a bit. Of course, the nest fell down and the fragile featherless chicks were scattered on the ground. I howled for hours with guilt and horror.
Then there’s the whole history of our family’s penchant for shooting critters. I have a photo somewhere of my great grandma Dean holding a shotgun with a dead swan hanging off the side of a shed, circa 1918. My father used to win trophies for marksmanship. Had I been born male I would have been invited to the fishing and shooting trips in Northern Saskatchewan. As I was a girl, I had to stay home and content myself with cuddling cats and looking at slides of pond water under a microscope.

While sorting through family photos I also discovered we had a picture of mom cuddling an alligator when she went on a trip to New Orleans in 1998. The image is not in focus, but it’s mom with a big smile, cuddling a baby alligator. Even though the photo isn’t a great quality it’s worth saving as a reminder to all of us of how fun-loving she is and what a gift that has been to our family as a nature mentor.

 And of course mentors beget mentors. I hope I've modeled my mom's critter cuddling for my son's benefit. This is a photo of my son chillin’ with some snails. I remember the warm autumn day because we took these photos. I’ll choose to put this one on the wall in our home to remind him that even though he’d much rather be inside the house playing board games and philosophizing, there was a time when he was an explorer, a nature lover and a snail cuddler.

Did you have a mentor that connected you to the natural world? When you ponder your family history you look for these signs from the past that give you hints of what sent you on your destiny as a tree or bee hugger. When you do find these photos it’s a reminder to keep getting outside, exploring and bonding with the natural world. It also reminds us to embrace being goofy and gushy because seeking silliness means you are opening your heart to let in those sparks of joy that make life bearable, memorable and worthwhile. Are you mentoring someone else’s journey to bonding with nature?  That is one of the best things you can do in this life on the little blue dot in the universe.