Evolving Body Language:Five Photographs by Toni La Ree Bennett

#1. May 1957: 5 Years Old

I’m five years old, posing on the porch in my favorite dress. I call it my “chicken coop” dress because the geometric pattern of the fabric mimics the fencing around chicken coops.

This is the beautiful house by the hospital, my grandparents’ house, the house my mother and I went back to every time we ran out of money. A house the color of Monopoly Baltic Avenue purple. A house with an “H” on the screen door, an “H” for Hays, a name my grandfather was proud of, a metal “H” attached to the door as if my grandparents were sure they would be living there forever.

I cock my head coyly at the photographer, my grandmother, one foot bent as if I had just completed a successful performance and was taking a bow. My shadow, a reversed image of my own body, appears as a bowed head, my hands holding my face, my legs turned inward. As if it could tell the future.

#2. April 1958: 6 Years Old

The clock in the loan company store front will always read seven minutes after eleven. A sign in the window behind me promises easy loans. In my new Easter outfit, I look sophisticated for my age, as if I had been modeling for years. A rakish white hat trimmed tactfully with navy sits atop a head full of Shirley Temple golden curls, and shades my plump cheeks and pug nose.

Two rows of young teeth shine from my tiny open mouth. My hands are white-gloved like the rabbit in Alice in Wonderland, one hand poised on my hip, the other lying gracefully on my navy blue coat which envelops my full-skirted white dress. My left leg is stuck out as if I was on the verge of going somewhere.

My mother will meet him for the first time three months from now.

#3. January 1959: 7 Years Old

Like a fresh-faced Dorothy, I stand in front of a farm house in Kansas, making my mittened hands into fists.

The house is painted an innocent white as if it had nothing to hide. Two long windows stand behind me, one comfortingly curtained, the other bare. At my feet, one half of the cellar trap door is closed, while the other gapes open. I know what is down there. Cages of breeding chinchillas. Long, sleek, bodies of fur, on top of another, humping in the darkness.

Even though a warm winter coat covers my Peter-Pan collared checkered dress, I am shivering. The photographer, the farmer’s son, is my stepfather. He was the one who showed me the chinchillas in the basement.

#4. April 1960: 8 Years Old

I pose sedately in front of a brick-solid house. My Brownie uniform demurely covers my knees, my beanie caps long sandy-colored tresses. My arms are intertwined, protecting my mid-section, from which a small roundness protrudes. It is the beginning of a woman’s belly, not a girl’s, and my untimely breasts strain against the plain fabric.

After picture-taking is over, the family will gather around the TV set to watch the annual spring showing of The Wizard of Oz. But this year, when they call me to join them, I will hide in the upstairs closet. I can no longer watch this movie with a child’s eyes.

#5. March 1961: 9 Years Old

My body is backed into the corner of a room where two bare white walls meet. My silky hair is brushed back off a bold, broad, virginal forehead, the hair transforming at the ears into shoulder-tipping ringlets. A chapel veil flares out from its precarious position on the back of my head like two wings that might lift me above the stark reality of this room.

I hold a missal firmly in my left hand like a medieval buckler. My right arm hangs limp at my side, fingers splayed as if nailed to the frothy, white, crinolined communion dress. Five buttons on the lace-armored bodice lead up to an impenetrable collar, offering a pure, unwrinkled neck above the burgeoning bust. A closed-mouth, tentative smile shows the hope that the upcoming ritual will protect me, but the man taking the photograph has me cornered and not even an angel could escape.


Toni's visual work has appeared in Glassworks, Gravel, Grief Diaries, Stickman Review, Tryst, Pierian Springs, Gin Bender Poetry Review, Blue Fifth Review, and Atomic Petals, as well as in many exhibitions in the Seattle area and is in private collections. Her website is : www.tonibennett.com

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