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"Photo Synthesis" by Elise Seyfried

Updated: Oct 2, 2021

#1 Berrigan and the Bambino

It’s not even the original photo. Some relative at some point scanned a few copies and sent them around. Lord knows where the original ended up. So, it’s a little grainy, a black and white image twice removed from the camera that took it. Five men stand in line, squinting in the sun, hands on hips or at their sides. The uniforms fit differently on each player: sleeves are halfway up the arms on the three beanpoles; the barrel-chested body of George Herman Ruth completely fills out the shirt and knickers. Then there’s Jack Berrigan, my grandfather, dead center. He’s at least a head shorter than the others and much skinnier. He’s a shortstop for the Yankees’ minor league team, and his torso is so small that the letters BRONX GIANTS collapse on themselves. The uniform sleeves are too long, covering the knuckles of both hands. Grandpa broke every finger, multiple times, during his stint playing professional baseball in the 1920s. He would show us the gnarled hands with the crooked fingers that had been improperly set all those years ago.

It’s hard to tell what point in the season this picture was taken. The spectators in the stands behind the players are all wearing hats, flat newsboy caps, or fedoras. No straw boaters, so I supposed it wasn’t summer yet. Summers were brutal, temperatures in Saint Louis reaching 120 degrees on the field at game time. Jack would lose 15 pounds during a doubleheader, he told us. The team would go out for thick steaks and beers, but Grandpa could never regain all the weight. Little me would hear these stories, horrified. It sounded nightmarish: battered bodies, soaked in sweat, pitching and hitting and running on the Fields of Hell. But those were the best times, Jack would insist. He wanted to keep playing (he was concurrently working his way through Fordham Law School), but he was dating Rose Smith, and Rose thought baseball players were playing a sucker’s game. Who would ever be able to buy a house and raise a family on the pittance they earned? So, rather than lose Rose for the sake of winning games, he took off the sagging uniform for good and married her.

As for his famous field mate, The Babe could surely afford fancy homes and cars and then some. His appetites for food, booze, and women were legendary. By 1930, Ruth was earning $80,000 a year (translating to over $1,000,000 today), more than Hebert Hoover, the current president. Babe’s immense talent took him far, of course, but it was his laser-focused determination to wallop those pitched baseballs over the stadium walls that carried him to fame.

In some ways, though they never became friends, the two men were more alike than it might seem. Both were Catholic, and both gave generously to charity; Babe’s philanthropy was unusual in those days--celebrities now are expected to donate to worthy causes. Grandpa’s talents lay in his sales skills and his incredible way with people (I guess those are the same, aren’t they?) With his brother Jimmy, he started one of the first insurance companies in New York City. Over the years, Berrigan and Berrigan insured some of the nation’s top country clubs, among many other impressive clients. Jack Berrigan never became famous, but his dynamic personality, his sharp Irish wit, his utter fidelity to truth and decency, and his sheer determination, made him a hero to his granddaughter.

But in this picture, Jack Berrigan does not appear heroic, not at all. He is physically eclipsed by the towering athletes surrounding him, particularly The Bambino. Even his cap is too large for his head; he looks like a child playing dress-up. However, it is a spring afternoon in New York, the sun is shining, and he is playing the world’s greatest game with one of its legendary competitors.

My grandfather grins widely, captured in this long-ago moment in time. Grandpa looks happy.

#2 Quartet

Color photo snapped right after a concert in Philadelphia, not sure of the venue. The four musicians sit on the edge of the stage, smiling, arms around one another. Two guys, two girls, none of them more than 20 years old. Behind them, the four chairs and music stands are still set up, but the audience has gone home. At this moment they could be any four college kids, kidding around, relaxed. My son Sheridan (who wrote a piece they played tonight ) has probably just told a really corny joke, and violinist Elena is about to poke him. The girls wear sparkly black dresses. Sheridan is wearing a tie I gave him, probably for a birthday. It is black, with small white music staves and notes printed on it. A silly gift; his musical world was so far beyond my understanding that I struggled to buy him anything a young composer and instrumentalist might actually need. So I bought him music-themed neckwear instead. And, good sport and sweet son that he is, he wore the ties. Even for concerts.

They are probably planning to order pizza, but maybe before they sleep there will be more practicing (especially if the performance has been less than perfect). Or at least, there’ll be a lengthy discussion, dissecting each movement, each measure. And even if they don’t take up their instruments again that night, Bartok will fill their dreams, and morning will bring more hours of practice, tuning and rosining bows and flipping pages of sheet music, over and over. All for the opportunity to share what they love with people who want to hear them. They aren’t solely devoted to classical music—they love Weezer and Green Day, as well as Schubert and Schoenberg. But it’s the chamber music and concertos that have the most pull on them, strong as electromagnetism, a force they couldn’t escape if they wanted to.

And they don’t want to.

I look at their faces now, 16 years later, and I don’t even recall the name of one girl. Alexis? But the other guy is definitely Ari. They would all graduate from top conservatories, and most if not all would have significant careers. Elena would go on to win the International Sphinx Competition and launch as a soloist with the London Symphony, the Boston Symphony, the New York Philharmonic. Ari is now a music professor, and founder of a well-known contemporary music group, the JACK Quartet. Sheridan still composes for ensembles around the world; he too teaches music and is also a church organist and choir director in a Philly suburb.

But this night, for the quartet of young people captured in this photograph, the major accolades and ovations are still in the future. They are just four friends who love playing concerts together. They look tired but wired too. They are formally dressed, but you can sense they will soon be changing into the jeans they prefer.

Sheridan will take off the silly tie at last.

#3 That First Summer

They are standing together in front of All Saints Episcopal Church in Rehoboth Beach. August 1982. The church in the photo looks much the same as it does today, with the red brick steps and white columns and a boxy hedge around the sides. The City of Rehoboth around it has undergone many changes, however--new hotels, condos, restaurants, and shops--and the couple in the shot looks entirely different now. In the picture, she wears a navy blue skirt and coral blouse. Big sunglasses. Her hair is cut quite short, the same easy-care style she’s worn most of her life. His hair is still light brown, and he’s wearing a white polo shirt and tan shorts. They could be young marrieds on vacation, pausing for a snapshot on the way down Olive Avenue to the beach. But behind them, between two columns that frame the church door, hangs a hand-lettered banner. REHOBOTH SUMMER CHILDREN’S THEATRE then, underneath, THE WIZARD OF OZ 7:30 PM TICKETS $2.00. This picture is taken right after one of the first performances of their brand new children’s theatre, and they’ve had no time for a boardwalk stroll this summer.

The entire fledgling enterprise is the very definition of a “mom and pop” operation (though as yet they are neither mom nor pop; there’ll be no kids for several more years). They write the two-actor scripts together and are themselves the two actors. And ticket takers. And sign letterers. And cookie bakers for the refreshment table. With no budget for publicity, they have attached a plywood RSCT sign to the top of their Chevette, and drive around town during the day drumming up business. It’s a discouraging beginning, but it definitely beats the previous summer in the Poconos. There, they had traveled to dozens of summer sleepaway camps and done their shows outdoors for loud and squirming kids, the air thick with the smell of bug spray, and thicker still with the bugs themselves, who didn’t let insect repellent repel them in the slightest. Surely they could find a better performing situation, the couple thought. Maybe…maybe the Delaware shore!

At $2.00/ticket, which even in 1982 did not go very far, they did not cash in that summer. Or the next. Or the next. They slowly developed a devoted core audience of families in that little ocean block church. One sweet mom would round up the neighborhood kids to see a play and pay extra for the chocolate chip cookies. Another pair of parents would pull up to the church on two tandem bikes, a child behind each adult. Typically, the after-show crowd would wander down the street to the boardwalk for some ice cream, as the sun set and the street lights blinked on. These early patrons, the “regulars,” would become friends, and word of mouth would gradually increase the crowds and coffers, until, almost 40 years later, their little theatre is a survivor, with mainstage shows and touring shows and theatre and film camps.

She hasn’t performed in more than a decade, nor has she managed the box office. No more cookie baking and their programs are professionally printed. Nowadays she is a church spiritual formation director and a freelance writer. He still runs the whole organization and even acts on occasion (though his days as a believable Prince Charming are long past). They were joined at the hip as a performing/producing duet for so long that her departure from the business has been a big adjustment. They both know her transition out of RSCT was for the best, but it hasn’t been easy. It still feels odd to arrive at the theatre and be greeted by a stranger selling tickets, and she has to stop herself from jumping in and handing out the programs.

In this snapshot of a Delaware shore town in summer, 1982, though, it’s still just the two of them against the world. He keeps the picture in a blue frame on his desk, and she is touched to realize that he still looks at it regularly. She has kept no such memento in her home office—in a way she doesn’t need to, the memories are so powerful and bittersweet. They have absolutely no idea, that slender and smiling young couple, what the next 40 years of living will bring.

Like her grandfather before and her son after, she is determined to make a go of this life. This life of broken fingers and broken violin strings. Some broken hearts. But also laughter-filled evenings in a children’s theatre. Magical nights of music on a concert stage. And beautiful sunny afternoons on a ball field with Babe Ruth.

Elise Seyfried is a member of the Rehoboth Beach Writer's Guild, and the author of four books of essays. Her essays have appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, HuffPost, The Independent, SHORE Monthly, Living Lutheran, Purple Clover and many other publications.

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