Sally Mann

Page 1

The place is important; the time is summer. It's any summer, but the place is home and the people here are my family.

I have lived all my life in southwestern Virginia, the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. And all my life many things have been the same. When we stop by to see Virginia Carter, for whom our youngest daughter is named, we rock on her cool blue porch. The men who walk by tip their hats, the women flap their hands languidly in our direction. Or at the cabin: the rain comes to break the heat, fog obscuring the arborvitae on the cliffs across the river. Some time ago I found a glass-plate negative picturing the cliffs in the 1800s. I printed it and held it up against the present reality, and the trees and caves and stains on the rock are identical. Even the deadwood, held in place by tenacious vines, has not slipped down.

And the clothes: the Easter dress was made for me when I was six by my mother and her mother, Jessie Adams. When Jessie Mann, thirty years later, spreads out that skirt, the hills that surround her are the same modest ones of our home.

I remember the heat. My mother, a Bostonian, would retreat to her bedroom for the afternoon, tendrils of long black hair stuck to her neck. I'd stay out with Virginia, sitting in her great lap as she peeled the apples, a dozen fat boxers lazing at our feet. The year my parents went to Europe, Virginia took me to her church. All the women wore white gloves and worked their flowered fans. I stood when Virginia stood, and great waves of music rolled over me. They tumbled me like a pale piece of ocean glass, and I washed up outside, blinking in the sudden heat and sunshine of Main Street.

Ninety-three years separate the two Virginias, my daughter and the big woman who raised me. The dark, powerful arms are shrunken now, even as the tight skin of my daughter's arms puckers with abundance. But, still, it seems that time effects slow change here. At the cabin, the river(s course is as invariable as the habits of its denizens: the great blue heron, who flies so fearlessly close that we can hear old gristle grind in his wing joins; the beaver; the eerie albino carp, almost fluorescent in the night water. In the fields above the river, cattle graze, turning toward us with those same dull faces, white like town children. And, across the country, my mother still lives in the same house, and the children roll in the new-mown grass down the same long hill. But my father is dead.

He was an oddball, a character, an eccentric. To this day, he remains a paradox to us. He was a physician who reminded me, even in his appearance, of the country doctor in W. Eugene Smith's Life photo essay. But where that doctor wore a look of puzzled exhaustion, my father very often wore a look of impish certitude. Maintaining an often