In my study, in the closet, there are five boxes of people I don’t know.
Five crates, clear plastic, full of photographs. One crate is full of slides and another of boxed Super 8 film reels. These were delivered by my father a few weeks ago.
I am listening to “An American in Paris.” My son and daughter-in-law are looking through the photographs with me. Daughter-in-law. I dislike imprecise language. Unmarried but a solid couple, adored by us, if I say daughter, it is correct in a sense but not in another, confusing, as my daughter would attest. If I say daughter-in-law, it is incorrect. If I say Jessica, it bears no weight, no affection, no relation. Imprecise language.
Imprecise memories as well. I cannot say who most of these people are. They bear no weight, no affection, no relation. There are no labels. No notes. Just faded faces, old clothes, foreign settings with foreign people. We file through them, staring overlong, putting some aside, sorting them into piles of we want and we know. Small small piles. We hold these aside. The rest are we don’t know and have no idea. They go back in the crates.
Like geometry, the relationships allow me to occupy a point in time and space far more than my location and date. This is something I lack. I lack the geometry that tells me who I am, where I am from, I am untethered, free-floating.
A few seem to be of me as a child. Some of myself and my brother. Some of my father and some of my mother. Some of both. Maybe more were. I can’t say. There are so many faces unrecognized. Grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins perhaps. Friends. How am I to know?
No one does. My father didn’t know. He is seventy-two. Since delivering the photographs, he went to Portugal. I am not sure why. He called from the Ft. Lauderdale Airport. Assured me he was coming back. Would I think otherwise? Two weeks later he was found wandering Newark Liberty Airport without his baggage. Other events, since then, are sketchy. He is home and I understand very little. His stories waver, depending on the day, depending on who he is talking to, depending on who-knows-what. Sometimes he is not sure to whom he is speaking. His stories are imprecise. His language, his relationships, imprecise. He has no geometry. He floats.
My mother knew who these people were. She is seventy-two. She will never be older than seventy-two. But in some pictures she is sixteen. Or twenty. She is with friends. With my father. In a bathing suit.
A few of these were shown to me, some years past, by my mother and my Aunt Jane. She was from England and met my Uncle Al when they were fourteen. He was pushing a street cart. In her late eighties she would go to the old age homes with my Uncle, to “entertain the old people.” She would play piano and sing. He would play accordion.
She showed me some pictures, told me who a few people were. She and my daughter made a family tree of whatever they could remember. In the nineteen thirties and forties, it looked like someone took a chainsaw to it.
When she died, my Uncle took me aside. He told me he felt untethered, he occupied no place. His geometry was gone. He just floated.
My Aunt showed one picture in particular. That is the one I wanted. The reason for these crates. It is of my great grandfather. He is the Lord Mayor of Hereford and is walking before a carriage with King George VI and Lady Elizabeth. I figure out who he is by process of elimination.
Of the five crates, only a handful of pictures have recognizable faces. Of some of these, I am not fully sure. I guess. If I write these guesses on the back, they become fact. I could use post-it notes, leaving their identities tentative. Imprecise. I think they deserve better. I can’t give it to them. I can’t offer them any real place, any real geometry. They shift and float.
But maybe guess are better than nothing. Someday, I may forget too.
November 24, 2010 at 12:41 AM
What an amazing piece this is. You've done something quite remarkable—you've expressed the inexpressible.