When I took my morning walk with our miniature dachshund to the mailbox to get the mail last Friday, I wasn’t really expecting much — a couple of bills, maybe a movie from Netflix, the usual mix of junk mail. I found all of that, along with an oversized padded envelope, the sort of thing you get when someone is sending you an “official document” and wants to be sure it arrives unharmed. I checked the return address and saw that it had come from my Aunt Janie.
On the way back to the house, I thought about what it might be. Maybe a newspaper with an article about one of our relatives in it? Maybe a magazine she wanted me to know about for some reason? I hadn’t heard from her, so obviously I wasn’t expecting anything. When I got back inside, I opened it up and beheld a bright purple folder, bulging with whatever was inside. I opened that, and saw what must have been two dozen photographs, along with the original funeral “programs” from my grandparents’ funerals, one for my grandmother, who we lost in August of 2001, and one for my grandfather, who died when I was just 9 years old, in March of 1971.
In those days, it was pretty common to have the viewing in the home, and I remember standing in the large entry way leading into the living room, watching as Papaw’s children, including my father, went up one at a time to see him once more before they shut the coffin lid. My mamaw sat at the kitchen table, with just the slightest trace of moisture in her eye.
That was the only time I can ever remember my dad crying. I may not have understood death exactly, but I knew then that no one is immune from pain and suffering and loss. I knew that something had changed and that things would not be as they were before, that the family would not, that my mamaw — in spite of her incomprehensible strength — would not, that I would not.
I shook out of this reverie and spread the photos over the kitchen counter. Some of them I knew already, including one of my dad and his four siblings, including Janie, that I have always cherished. It was taken when they were all still in their 20s or early 30s. Somebody — my mother probably — somehow convinced my dad to wear a suit for the photo, although his older brother John R got away with a green button down shirt that looks as if it could be flannel. But they all look good in it, and it occurs to me that this is the way I think of them, my aunts and uncle, because I have seen this same picture on the walls of various houses since I was 5 years old. Now it is going up in mine. This is them. It will always be them.
While a few of the other pictures were nearly as familiar, most of the photographs were completely new to me, including various photographs of my dad as a child. In one of them, he is 9 years old, hair still blonde, swept over — but not really combed — from one side to the other as he posed for what appears to have been a school picture. He is not pleased to be in the photograph, although his countenance is one more of studied indifference than a scowl. Is it over? OK, then.
In the next photograph, Janie is standing in the yard, waving at whoever is taking the picture. In the background is the “old house,” which was once directly across the road from the house they built and moved into in the mid 1960s. Janie has written a pretty extensive message on the back of this one, part of which is that she and her sister Louise were born in the old house, and that Lillie’s two daughters were brought home there, and spent their first few years of life in that same house.
It may be that my earliest memories were of that house, not so much when people still lived in it but rather as an old, mostly empty house across the street where we would steal away and play inside. I remember the rusted tin roof, the creaking floors, the strange feelings I had being in there with my siblings and cousins.
In another picture, taken from the porch of the old house, Janie and Louise stand in front of a boxwood tree — the two of them no more than 4 or 5 years old. But it’s the background that startles me. There are all the buildings I remember from boyhood. The chicken house, the granary, the pig pen, and finally the barn.
All of these buildings are long since gone. The pond that used to be down below the barn, where we fished for bream with a Zebco 33 and caught tadpoles in mason jars, has long since filled in and grown over. As far as I know, I have never seen a single photograph of any of these buildings, which existed until now only in my memories, these memories.
Watching my grandmother reach underneath chickens in the chicken house and magically come out with eggs. Climbing on bales of hay in the barn and leaping over cow pies while she milked the cows. Tossing apples from the ground at ones still attached to the big apple tree, trying to knock them loose. Teasing the bull from the safety of the barbed wire fence. Picking gooseberries, huckleberries, and chinquapins, eating more than we put in the bucket. Hunting under rocks in the creek for crawdads and lizards. Digging out big holes in the bank across the road, looking for shiny quartz or mica. All of this comes back with a force I can no better understand than the force I could not understand as a 9 year old, watching my father cry over his father. But here it is. His childhood, my childhood, somehow all collapsed into one thing and one place.
As I have grown older, I have become less certain about my earliest memories — what is real, what I might have dreamed or imagined. I believed I could make it out, yes, but sometimes have struggled to find my way back there. Now that Aunt Janie has delivered this map, this portal in a purple folder, the going is much easier. And it’s a place I still need to go, will always need to go.