Note: This chapter about the family photos will appear near the middle of the book . . .
Not Worth a Thousand Words
Browsing through an antique store, I come across an old photo album filled with snapshots of a family who once lived near a beach. California? Florida? Turning the pages, I wonder who these people were. Captions like “Uncle Eddy” and “summer vacation” don’t help. I find no complete names, no dates. Many of the pictures show the same two blonde girls, maybe twelve years old, who may have been twins. Besides seeing them, over and over again, I see a house with a palm tree, a Chevrolet station wagon, and a scruffy dog that always looks at the girls, never at the camera. A seemingly happy family from the 1950s is my best guess.
I wonder where they are now and how their pictures ended up in an antique shop with a price tag on them—cheap. Of course, I have to consider the possibility that they’re dead. Likely the album came from an estate sale. I glance around, taking in the oversized armoires, out-of-style lamps, ashtrays and jewelry, knowing that many of those things once furnished lives that are no more, but the furniture and knickknacks don’t affect me the same way. We grow tired of chairs and china. We remodel and find the old couch doesn’t fit the new lifestyle, but usually we hang onto the pictures, no matter what.
I wonder who would buy a book of old family photos. Someone who has assumed a new identity? Someone in the US Marshal’s Witness Protection Program? Or, maybe, someone who ran away—walked out, one day, and disappeared to start a new life. Adding an old album to the décor would be like saying, “See I have old photos. That must mean I am a genuine person with a real past.” Of course, if anyone took that seriously and asked about the pictures, a story would have to be invented.
That’s what I’m doing while I’m standing there, making up a story. Let’s face it, a family photo is not worth much without the memories that go with it, which is the more likely reason the photo album has come to be in that shop. No one remembers the stories any more.
As I continue to thumb through the pages, it’s hard not to notice the way each picture has been carefully mounted with black corner tabs, reinforced with bits of clear tape. The tape has yellowed over the years, but someone wanted to keep the pictures secure. They were secure in the album, but they’d slipped away from life.
I turn to the final sheet and find myself looking at a larger photo of one of the blonde girls, the one who smiled more. Unlike the other snapshots, this one is a studio portrait. She’s become a young woman. If the previous photographs are any indication, she’d had a happy childhood. She is still smiling. I want to believe that smile carried her safely through. At the same time, I kissed my fingertips and touched them to her face.
I haven’t always been that sentimental. As a child, I spent several interminably long evenings with a great aunt whose idea of entertainment was to bring out her books of family photographs. She had more albums than we could look at in a single evening, but she always started at the beginning, like she didn’t remember we’d done this before. Turning the pages slowly, she would carefully repeat the names, “This is cousin So-and-So.” A man’s wife was always “Mrs. So-and-So,” never a first name, who was called something else before she was married and something else after she re-married. That happened much later, usually. Of course, Mrs. So-and-So was related to someone else I was supposed to know, but didn’t. I grumped and slumped through the evening while my great aunt excused my behavior saying that “very likely I was just too young to remember.”
I also had an uncle who twisted nursery rhymes into ribald limericks. Since no one would explain why they were so funny, I had to remember them until I was old enough to figure it out on my own.
Mary had a little lamb
She tied him to a heater
Every time he turned around
He burned his little peter
will run through my head the rest of my life.
Names and dates don’t stick: never have, never will; but, once in awhile, my great aunt got distracted and told me something interesting, like the fact that one of my ancestors was a Viking pirate. Of course, when I asked to see a picture of him, she didn’t have one. He was a rogue long before photography was invented, which meant she was forced to fill-in. “Our family came from Denmark, not the regular part of Denmark, but a little island off the coast with a hidden cove—a favorite Viking hideout. There were pirates plundering nearby ports from that little island far longer than from the Barbary Coast,” she claimed.
Turns out that’s mostly true, but, even if she was still alive, I doubt she’d be impressed by the fact that I’ve been to that little island, checking out her pirate story, among other things. She was less about truth and more about application. When she told a story, she made sure it made a point.
“We are luckier than pirates,” she told me. “We have so many new things, such wonderful inventions, these days a pirate wouldn’t know what to steal.”
“But no one has improved on Viking ships,” she always added, which fit another of her themes—the idea that new things might amaze, but old things were still better. She preferred old furniture, old pictures and old soap. One of my grandmothers was famous for making soap. My great aunt had a piece of “the old family formula,” she would let me wet a finger and try some next time I came. It was always next time. I never actually got to do it.
Don’t know what happened to the soap or the old family formula. My mother inherited the photo albums. Now years later, at my request, she gets them out again. Remarkably, they still smell like my great aunt’s house, a scent best described as geraniums and old linoleum.
However, being unlike my great aunt in almost every sense, my mother flips the book over and starts from the back where I’m startled to find photos of me. One is a snapshot of my grandfather, down on his hands and knees, letting me ride him like a horse, only I’m too old for that kind of play. I’m almost ten and I have a huge plaster cast on my arm. I’d broken it while riding my horse and was forbidden to ride again until it was healed—a harder blow than the actual injury. I’d appealed to him to intervene. He didn’t, but, sympathizing with my plight, he rolled off the couch and let me ride him instead.
That is the real value of family pictures. They are memory prompts, reminding us of moments that matter. Of course, that’s also the rational we use when we invest in wedding photos. Never mind that all wedding pictures look pretty much the same.
My mother’s cousin, Marjorie, was married on V-J Day, 1945. “We had the date set and all our plans made long before we knew it was going to be a national holiday,” she told me when I stopped by her place asking about the family stories. “But it turned out fine. In fact, it was better than fine. Everyone was so happy that the war was over, we partied the whole night.”
She’d recently remarried, having lost her first husband to heart problems. Her new husband, Milton, had never seen her earlier wedding pictures. He practically cooed over them. Marjorie is a beautiful woman, always has been, but he seemed particularly pleased at what a beautiful young bride she’d been, as if seeing her in pearls and white confirmed his own good judgment.
He was moved to tell me how the two of them met. He’d signed up for an Elderhostel program, and, when he arrived, there were “all these women,” he said shaking his head. “There are always more women than men at Elderhostel programs,” he tells me. “The guys usually have to fend off invitations, but I spotted Marjorie right away. I liked what I saw and wanted to talk and be a little friendly, but she was with her girlfriends.” In his mind, that complicated matters.
“A couple of old friends,” Marjorie explained. “They knew right away that he was giving me the eye.”
Milton liked hearing that, even though I suspected he’d heard it before. I was under the impression that he’d told his story lots of times. People in love do that. They like to tell the story of how they met as if that somehow explains their good fortune.
Marjorie’s wedding pictures are also in my great aunt’s album, next to a picture of my mother and her three sisters dressed for prom night. There’s a story that goes with that picture, too. Supposedly my father showed up that night with a corsage made of potatoes. He’d taken the trouble of having someone put the corsage together with ribbons and everything. It was fancy, and it looked nice, but it was potatoes—his idea of a joke. He had the real corsage in his car.
My mother more than played along. When he tried to exchange the potato corsage for the real one, she wouldn’t do it. She told him that a girl always wore the corsage she was given, even if the flowers weren’t exactly right. According to the family story, she insisted on wearing her potato corsage to the dance, much to my father’s embarrassment.
The picture tells a different story. My mother is wearing real flowers. Evidently when it came time to preserve the moment for posterity, the joke was over. Everything was picture perfect when the photo was actually taken.
The real surprise?
The great aunt who bored me with her photo albums kept a journal. She names her first boyfriend, Alonzo Eckersley, and tells how they spent one summer together:
Every night we would take a ride on my horse and then dream dreams of what we were going to do in the future. One night his dog was poisoned. Both of us surely did cry.
She doesn’t say what happened to Alonzo. Instead, she shifts to how she went away to board for high school. She lived with a family named Stewart and took piano lessons but didn’t like making music. She names her best girlfriends: Mildred Rhule, Grace Ritchie, and Ruby Ward. That next summer she “chummed” with Alice and Marie Breyman.
They had a car and so did I. We had a good time that summer with all the boyfriends! I guess there were too many boyfriends because I got so I hated them all. They were all alike, how disgusting, and they all acted and talked alike.
The year happens to be 1922, but the tale is timeless.
We take photographs, sometimes feverishly, trying to hold the moments that matter, but, nearly always, when I tell someone that I’m gathering the family stories, I get a puzzled response, as if that is not a task for the serious. Names and dates on genealogical charts, fine. Copying the family photographs, encouraged. Stories? My response is to wonder, out loud, why we don’t put as much effort into recording our love stories as our weddings.
My mother, I realize, is one of those who can’t take this project seriously. I suspect she started at the back of the photo album hoping that I’d be satisfied with the pictures of me and move on. Nothing new. My entire childhood, she and I had a running battle over the length of my hair. I wanted it long. She wasn’t having it. Long hair was too much trouble, and she knew me. I would never sit still long enough to have the tangles combed out—an opinion that has spilled over into other areas. That I’ve been at this not-so-serious task of gathering the family stories for six months now, evidently isn’t enough evidence to suggest I’ll sit still long enough to see it to an end.
The truth is, it’s her patience, not mine, that’s wearing thin. She’s flipping through the pages, faster and faster. I don’t care, except that there is one photo I don’t want to miss. I watch, wondering if I’ll recognize it. I’ve about given up, thinking we must have passed the page, when spot it—the picture that always stopped my great aunt and made her draw back before she tapped her finger on the face and proclaimed, “That was the meanest man in America.”
When someone says something like that, you’re going to ask why, but it was famous family soap all over again. She never said. She shook her head, told me I was too young to understand and promised, “Maybe, next time.”
Now, my hand holding the page open, I stare at the picture as if expecting to see the meanness. What I see is a man with a big mustache and an odd tie. It’s the tie that assures me this is the right photo. I used to think that tie was something a clown might wear, striped, as it was, horizontally. Now I realize it was probably stylish for the time—a man dressed in his best for a formal portrait.
I point to the picture. “What’s his story?”
My mother shrugs. “He’s your Grandma Melba’s father.”
And I realize I know the story. When my grandmother Melba was a baby, her mother grabbed her, nothing else, no other baggage, and fled, at a time when women did not leave their marriages. She found work as a seamstress in a town where few people knew her, and, for a while, things were OK. My Grandmother Melba remembered making castles out of thimbles and watching the fine ladies come in for fittings. She made her mother laugh when she imitated the way the ladies walked and sat and talked. She also remembered that no one wanted her when her mother died. Contacted by the authorities, her father wired, “Don’t want brat back.”
“At least she had the guts to go,” my mother adds. She means Grandma Melba’s mother. I know because the phrase is familiar. It is repeated whenever this part of our history comes up. It is said both as a compliment to Melba’s mother and as a slap at the second wife, who didn’t have the guts to leave, even though “the meanest man in America” also beat her and “every horse and every dog he ever owned,” the family always adds for emphasis.
I worry about families who think because they’ve saved the pictures that they’ve saved their history. Pictures add interest, but, too often, they don’t record reality. We see a handsome man dressed in his finest, when it’s the man’s meanness that matters, that set the whole family on a different path. The moment we enshrined the wife, who had the guts to leave, we also formed our values around thumbing our noses at tradition. Our rebels became our heroes, especially our gutsy women, who, in true form, never sit still long enough to get the tangles out of their hair.