SERIES: Part 18
The table is cleared of books, cell phone and Dad’s fiddle and bow, to make room for the box of old family photos I’ve been looking forward to since before my arrival. I’ve always loved old photographs, and now I’ll finally get to see more of my own family history –– not from websites and DNA matches I’ve never met, but first hand with my own father.
We sift through glossy black and whites of my grandparents, great-grandparents, and extended family, while Dad relates the back-stories his memory allows. Many images are of Dad and his brother, whose response to the news of my existence has so far been silence. I want to know my uncle but I try not to take it personally. I know that for him, I’m just a stranger. Not family.
My uncanny resemblance to my grandmother still fills me with wonder. “It’s spooky,” Dad says, as in awe as I am; it must be so strange for him. I would swear some of the images of my grandmother were me if I didn’t know better, and the longing I feel for my grandparents –– dead before I ever got the chance to meet them –– is amplified as I glean the stories each photo tells. In a glossy wedding photo, my grandmother looks ecstatic. Dressed in a traditonal white gown and veil, she beams with joy at my grandfather, a buttoned down Marine. In one hand he holds his cup for a toast, with his other arm wrapped around his adoring wife. Another image shows them in a group seated around a restaurant table. My grandmother is alluring in her fascinator hat and stunning smile. They appear to be celebrating; everyone at the table looks happy except for my grandfather who has the haunted eyes of a soldier just returned from a terrible war.
One by one, the photos are selected from the box, chatted over, and placed in a pile to the side. We come across a snapshot from my father’s childhood. The whole family is seated next to each other on one side of a picnic table at the top of a hill. Virginia mountains are stretched behind them and a large tree branch hangs down overhead. Something about the image draws me in –– it’s meant to be posed, but there is something unspoken caught in the molecules of that moment and still resonates from the image over sixty years later. My grandfather sits hunched on the table with his feet rested on the bench, arms folded over his knees and looking down. My grandmother is smiling, hands rested on her skinny legs. She and my father, aged maybe 8 or 9, are both looking at something he’s holding in his hands. His brother, Roy, sits at the end, focused on their brindle-striped dog. No one is looking at the camera.
As I stare at the scene, I feel a surge of emotion, without knowing why. When I look up, my father’s face is in his hands, and he is sobbing silently. I put my hand on his back and sit there in the dim light, surrounded by family history and baggage that he is just beginning to tell, and let him cry. I watch him be overwhelmed, and I’m struck, yet again, by how strange it is that I love him so much. I think of my mother; the only thing connecting her to my father is me. Other than a single shared night, they are strangers and I’m amazed that so much love can exist between us when he and my mother meant nothing to each other. My father and I have no history either, but the bond between us seems to have been made not yesterday, but over forty years ago when he made me and, by some biological or cosmic mystery, it was never broken.