Photo Album

Posted on August 17, 2011 by


by Kimberly Dark

When my father died, I found a box full of loose photos and one giant album that he had inherited when his mother died nearly twenty years before. He didn’t ever pull them out and go through them with me, telling stories, reminiscing as some parents might’ve done.  My father didn’t remember his childhood fondly. It was hard to know what he thought of his clan, but his disdain was plain for his parents, his hometown of Waco.

The photo album shows signs of family drama – family violence, one might say.  The photos had been glued onto the big black pages with some fixative so strong it wasn’t possible to just remove the pictures.  Certain family members had their faces scratched out and others were torn in half – the thick photo paper still clinging to the page with nothing but half a suit, the ribbon on a dress still intact.

These things make a person curious, but whom could I ask?  My father was the last of his line – his aunt is still alive, but she’s ninety-four and hardly speaks these days. After his death, I visited her and asked a few questions about family, but she could do little more than smile and repeat “I love you!” at the top of her lungs.

So, this is what I have: a photo album full of scandals, mysteries and violence.  Some of the pictures in the beginning of the album look so old I was prompted to look up the history of photography.  The Eastman Company distributed the first camera for home use in 1888.  Before that time, a person had to hire a photographer to take the pictures.  The first page of the album seems to predate the introduction of home photography; I can’t be sure.  The album became full when my grandmother was a young woman – probably around 1930.

I know there was a lot of incest in my family, and violence and alcoholism.  I know my great-grandmother shot herself when her three children were very small – ages eight, four and two.  There had been another child – he would’ve been six at her death, had he lived past his own second year. She’s one of my favorite mysteries – my great-grandmother who shot herself with a shotgun one afternoon after sending her children out to play.  She’d finished the shopping that morning, returned back home and ended her life. I don’t know why.  Her life seemed tough – and plenty of people survive tough lives.  Part of my fascination stems from how much I resemble her.  My grandmother Lois and I share a body type, but I have Lois’ mother’s face.  Her husband called her Polly, but that wasn’t her given name.  Though my grandmother’s handwriting can be found throughout the photo album, beneath many of the pictures and then in the back on a taped-in piece of paper, hers is not the only script there.  She reports her mother’s name as Arlington Sephronia.  I’m not sure about her surname before it was Huddleston – my grandmother’s maiden name.  Earlier in the album, however, her name is printed as Saffronia.  Sometimes, her name is listed as Ollie – this variation (and I suppose Pollie too, for the matter) makes some sense given the way the Texan speech would drop the “r” from Arlington.  Her name changes throughout her short life – as women’s names change with marriage, as slaves names changed with ownership.  So far as I knew, my father’s family was part Cherokee, part Comanche, but mostly white European.  The stories I heard as a child – and beyond – were never stable.  My father didn’t speak of race or ancestry at all.

During the weeks after my father’s death, I pored over the photo album and looked through the remaining pictures loose pictures, mostly dated sometime between 1930 and 1960. I commented on the ever shifting name references to a friend who pointed out a clue I hadn’t yet considered.  Could Saffronia have changed to Sephoria to hide a reference to African-American ancestry, as much as one to native ancestry?  I suddenly remembered Saffronia from the Nina Simone song “Four Women.”  “My skin is yellow. My hair is long. Between two worlds I do belong. My father was rich and white. He forced my mother late one night. My name is Saffronia.”

I couldn’t help but think of the African and African-American slavery-era tradition of name-shifting throughout one’s life as I looked into the eyes of a woman whose face I resemble most in that album. Who are you, Saffronia, Sephoria, Arlington, Pollie.  You are one of my favorite mysteries.

In an envelope with the album were some photos that would’ve kept me up wondering, had they not been accompanied by news clippings that (partially) explained the scenes. They were front yard dioramas depicting holiday scenes – some Christmas, some Easter and some weirdly mixed up with Halloween imagery and Easter eggs hanging from trees like Christmas ornaments.  My jaw dropped at this mystery.  And then I read the newspaper clippings lauding the creator of these wonders – my great-uncle Richard, Arlington’s youngest son.

I knew him as a drifter, a traveler – a hard worker when he was working, but he said he felt better moving along.  There were also photos of him as a young marine, and more pictures that he seemed to have taken while in Asia, photos of military planes and boats and a festive looking rooftop party where all the women looked Philipino and Korean perhaps. I don’t know where he was stationed.

The neighborhood dioramas worried me a bit – not just in that way that a single man’s interest in children is a cultural worry. I know how common incest and child molestation was in my family and who knows whether these displays ever acted as lures. There was a draft of a letter written from one of the Easter rabbit characters in a display to a little girl in the neighborhood, hoping she’d come by and visit.

I didn’t learn a critical detail about my Uncle Richard’s life until long after he was dead and I was an adult, however.  The man I knew as something of a drifter had actually planned a career in the Marine Corps, but after thirteen years of admirable service, he received a dishonorable discharge for homosexuality.  It’s pretty hard to get a good job after such an event – even though he had a bachelor’s degree in Accounting.  He did hard manual labor after that, when he was employed.

There were other mysteries in the photo album too – curiosities about people who were unnamed – no writing beneath the pictures at all.  One picture, for example, caught my eye.  It showed a couple, posed in the way of couples with the woman in front on the left of the image and the man behind her, to the right.  That page of images shows clothing from the 1890s and the number of couples on that page in exactly the same pose leads me to believe it was a family photo shoot.  All of them were posed the same, with the man behind, one arm wrapped protectively around the side, hand resting on that of the woman in his care.  They were all the same but the one – in which both the man and the woman, were women.  I squinted to see the details of the couple’s stance – definitely posed as a married pair.  The husband was wearing a man’s suit, just as the men in the other photos, but her hair was long and tied up on her head.  The wife was posed just as the other wives were, unsmiling, wearing a white dress. Their two soft faces stared at me from the album and of course, I felt I knew them, could’ve been that one in front.  Was this their life – as open as it seemed?  And how was their union recorded and were there children?  I scanned my grandmother’s notes in the back of the album for two female names, but of course not.  No pairing like that was recorded for history.  So many mysteries of omission, despite the tangible evidence of people’s lives.  Their races and marriages and dates of birth and death always support the story needed to get ahead, to get by.

Even if my father and my grandmother had told me their stories – that’s all that I’d know: their stories.  That’s what photo albums and birth records and letters and memoirs contain after all – people’s stories.  Sometimes a person can cross-reference the stories and get a picture that’s probably pretty close to true.  Sometimes the stories don’t cross-reference.  This isn’t always because someone made up untruths, or was an out and out liar.  Sometimes the true stories we tell are true because we want them to be, or because it’d be better that way, or because no one needs to know something that would affect their lives negatively.  Sometimes, a story is a benevolent telling of the only way a thing should be told.  That’s how I picture my grandmother’s intentions – as she wrote out the histories of the people, as she pulled out the photos that pained her.  Or maybe her mama made some of those marks in the album – or my father did, for all I know.  Something is told in every story and something else is concealed.  In this story, for example, I have focused my language and curiosity on that which interests a middle-aged queer sociologist living in my time.

What might my son read – and wonder – in the way I have arranged our family albums?  That’ll be his story to tell.

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