I enjoy going through storage boxes, the older the better: letters written on onion skin or aerogram, sweaters I knit thirty years ago, fine ceramic bowls my husband and I bought when we lived overseas. It’s a small box I’m curious about today. A long-neglected one buried behind the detritus in my desk. It’s pretty. Having been originally for notecards, its cover depicts an olive branch printed over sepia-colored Florentine maps. It’s a box I’m quite happy I kept.
Inside I find snapshots of my daughters: Mitra as a middle-school pirate, complete with tricorn hat, and Mana in a black slip dress, sitting on the lawn and hugging her knees, a beautiful and troubled teen. There are also ticket stubs from a Diana Krall concert my husband and I attended in 2005, along with expired credit cards, passport information, and two meditation balls I’d forgotten I had. Then I discover, buried beneath all this, three glossy black-and-white photos from my childhood: two of me and one of Uncle Ralph.
The scalloped-edge of the first is imprinted with the date, September 1959. Ralph must be visiting while Dad is away on a business trip. Though slightly out of focus, the image is clear enough. My brother John looks to be around four, which would make Jeff two, if that. I am not in this photo but I think I was six. Ralph sits with his back to a picture window. The Venetian blinds, partially closed, block the view of the yard. The living room drapes are patterned with trees in bold bloom. The couch is not in color, but I know it to be a textured burgundy. The davenport, my family called it. It used to create rug burns on my skin when my brothers and I wrestled.
They huddle together, my brothers caught in near laughter. John looking at Jeff, Jeff with his hands on his round little stomach, his knees drawn up. Ralph, however, is solemn. Logger-built: broad-shouldered, muscled arms and thighs, narrow hips, he sits with his arms crossed over his chest. His shirt, a worked denim, has the sleeves rolled up. All three wear their hair buzzed into crew cuts. Ralph gazes at neither the boys nor the camera. He seems to be watching me and I imagine myself pressed so hard against my mother she cannot hold the camera straight.
Days before his death, Dad sat propped up in the hospital bed, his eyes bright and blue and wet. The hospice room glowed with artificial light. There was a curtain in front of the door, for privacy, but it had been pulled back. In the corridor was a nurse’s station so there was laughter and chat. Dad leaned into his pillows, exhausted. He closed his eyes and I lowered his bed. After a moment, I tried taking up my knitting but my heart was still in too much of a rush. Instead, I held Dad’s thin and trembling hand. In the room next door was another patient and her family came and went: footsteps, voices, bits of conversation. One woman passed in front of the crack in the door, her face made up as if for a party and her shimmering dress had a thigh-high slit.
The next photograph is dated October 1956, earlier than the first. My sister and I sit on the arm of the new davenport, its tightly tufted fabric barely worn. We are chubby children, in our Sunday best. Though I was only three years old, I recall the dress. Its fabric was a lightweight cotton, white sprayed with pink rosebuds. The sleeves, short and puffed high, create flowers of my shoulders. There is a red velvet ribbon across the bodice and it has a fancy two-tiered skirt.
Schann and I both have home haircuts, our bangs trimmed choppy and high. She is the pretty blonde, slimmer and livelier, with a sly sisterly grin, part affection, half jealousy. Put down your hand, my mother must be saying, for I have not one but three fingers in my mouth.
I am the second in a family of seven children. People often asked if we were Catholic, but we were not. Christian Scientist and Presbyterian –though my parents preferred spending their Sunday mornings watching sports and old movies; later, morning news.
What my mother told me about my early childhood was that I liked running around naked, not just indoors but all over the yard. And because of your behavior, she always began, but then her voice trailed off. She never specified what kind of trouble I got in, only that for my carefree ways I was spanked.
My father died of gangrene; it’s common in the elderly, from poor circulation, blockages to the limbs. Dad’s was not the wet and smelly type featured in films set in the tropics; his was dry, his foot withered, his toes black and shrunken. Frostbite, not pulsing rot. The nurses dressed the wound with gauze. Dad’s moaning eased a bit.
My father’s passing looked nothing like Mom’s. She’d had a blockage in her colon and was so heavily sedated as to be unconscious. Her mind had long been gone. It was only on his deathbed that Dad’s mind slipped. He kept adjusting his WWII cap, taking it off and putting it on, smoothing his few tufts of hair, making incomprehensible sounds and waving his arms. The nurse said he was delusional, seeing people that weren’t there. It was a stage of passing. To keep him comfortable, she offered more drugs. It was a relief when he calmed.
The date of the final photograph is November 1958. The four of us older kids sit huddled together on a baby blanket spread over a knobby carpet. I am furthest to the left. The davenport and the curtains and the Venetian blinds are in the background. Through the window, a dark stand of conifers is visible, cedar or Douglas fir. There is also a door, painted white.
I am the first person you notice; my dishwater blond hair shines and I wear a smile so wide you can see all my missing teeth. I’m holding Jeff’s hand. He is younger than one. Schann’s arm is around him, supporting his back. She’s wearing a simple play shirt and white cardigan, while I’m dressed up. Not Sunday best but in my new school clothes, a brown jumper over a short-sleeve blouse. Puffy sleeves again and a Peter Pan collar. John is sitting with his mouth open, staring at me, furthest right. It must be a good moment because we appear very happy, our smiles wide, giggles barely suppressed.
Perhaps Dad is home and Uncle Ralph no longer lives with us.
My father’s passing was one of the last privileged vigils before the coronavirus hit. It took three days, perhaps four. The details are blurred. On what turned out to be his final day, my sister and I took turns occupying the folding chair beside Dad’s bed. Word of my father’s impending death had traveled and old friends arrived in his hospice room, wanting to say good-bye. That morning Dad’s death rattle began, a wet rasping sound. By afternoon a crowd had gathered, everyone laughing and joking as we talked of other things: our polarizing president, fears of the rapidly approaching virus, traffic and our journeys to the hospital. The nurses produced more uncomfortable chairs. Someone brought food and we shared chips and fruit. Mandarin oranges were in season and they tasted bright and alive, both tart and sweet. Still, our hearts were bound to Dad and after a time our conversation dropped to whispers. I placed my hand on Dad’s forehead. His color had changed, the pallor of his lips. And then we didn’t hear them, his struggling breaths.
Ralph was my mother’s brother. He died several years before my father, having lived most of his life in the country, on his parents’ farm, with a wife.
Not long after 1959, the date of the first photo, the one of Ralph, Dad got a job in a different city and we moved away from the house with the Venetian blinds and textured couch. After that, Ralph disappeared from our lives. We saw him only at large family gatherings, people milling about, the crowd fringed with children who played and laughed. Ralph watched but never approached.
I suspect Mom must have told Dad of me stripping, running, and giggling, of Ralph’s tickling and egging me on. I run my thumb over the photograph’s glossy paper, further clouding the image of Ralph’s face. Remembering roils my gut and I nearly rip Ralph’s photograph in half. I could toss him in the garbage bin. There would be some physical satisfaction in that, a lifting of the chest, a slight smile, an exhale of breath. But bodies have memories of their own, often ones the mind cannot bear, and no matter what I do my scars will remain, deep wounds, corded and thick.
For years, Dad was the only living person who knew my story. Maybe. Perhaps. I could never be sure because I was too afraid to ask, certain he would claim I was wrong, that no such terrible incident ever occurred. He’d not have allowed it. Dad had a way of growling uncomfortable situations away. But with Dad’s passing, there is only me living with my truth. My breath deepens relaxing my shoulders, calming my heart, and I return the photographs to the pretty little box, cover them with the more roseate mementos of my life, then place it back in my desk where it belongs.