Tuesday, November 11, 2008
Stealing a branch from the family tree
I'll let you in on a secret: I've absconded with the family album. Actually, I borrowed it from my mom a couple of years ago, who had previously borrowed it from her sister, my elderly aunt -- who may very well at this moment be parked in front of the television, unable to focus clearly on the brusque pronouncements emanating from Judge Judy's pursed lips, for wondering where the heck it is. It is a large, red leatherette tome that is embossed in gold, haphazardly bound together with twist-ties from old bread wrappers, and falling apart in a very bad way. I had actually planned to arrange the photos in a new, archival-quality album that would preserve them properly, although I fear that removing them from the vintage sticky-backed, magnetic pages will cause many of the photos to crumble. And so, the album remains squirreled away in a cabinet -- yet another of those innumerable projects I've not yet attended to.
I like to take the precarious album out of hiding from time to time, and gingerly turn its pages. It is filled with photos of my mom's maternal line, and I believe the oldest photo is that of my great-great-great grandfather (if I'm following the succession correctly). He wears a heavily braided, brass-buttoned uniform and reminds me vaguely of Captain Kangaroo (with all due respect to this long-gone grandpa and good ol' Bob Keeshan).
There are numerous photos of my grandmother and her brothers as children. For some reason, these photos intrigue me. Perhaps it is because I only ever knew them as "old folks", seeing them as youngsters and wondering what their lives were really like is a fascinating exercise to me. Even though they came long before I did, in what ways were we alike? If I'd somehow been able to know them in their youth, would we have been friends?
I look at the sepia-toned photos of my great-uncle, Buster. When I was a child, he and my great-grandmother lived for a time next door to my grandparents, and I visited fairly often. I was terrified of Buster. An ex-Navy man, he was rough and gruff, and had battled the bottle which had taken its toll on him in a number of ways. He was a tattooed, leather-skinned curmudgeon with a cauliflower nose whose bark of "Hey, c'mere kid" struck terror in my heart. Yet, he only ever wanted to give me that which all children crave: A bit of spending money. Sometimes it was a quarter. On occasion, it was a whole dollar, and I was rich! I remember tentatively stepping into his darkened room when he beckoned with his scary snarl, only to emerge briefly thereafter with overwhelming relief at not being eaten alive, and even better -- money in my pocket! Looking at his photos now through knowing adult eyes, I see him as he might really have been. Where had his travels taken him? What did he regret most in life? Did he ever fall in love? Obviously, behind his coarse exterior his heart held a soft spot for the little child that I once was.
A small and petty part of me rather revels in the knowledge that I have this album in my possession, and that it isn't presently in the hands of my older cousin, who has always (and rather inexplicably) considered himself some sort of family patriarchal figure -- a self-appointed conductor of family business who would undoubtedly wish to be the keeper of treasured family photos as well. Strangely enough, it only occurred to me very recently that these photos do not just belong to him and what I've long considered to be "his" side of the family. This is my family too. These are my people. I just wish I knew more about them.
Lately I've been considering what a very short time each of us is allotted on this earth. Someday, someone somewhere will open a musty album and gaze upon photos of me as a child. Will they wonder who I really was? Will they contemplate my life? Will I matter?