Old Photos

I am overcome with sadness. Excavating behind the sofa, I find that finally Mother has the last word. I’ve uncovered a cache of the family pictures she carried with her to the retirement home. They’re crudely wrapped in aging newspapers and stuffed into a paper grocery bag. They are testament to the day we packed up her room, on the afternoon after her memorial service that weekend almost twenty years ago.
I wrapped them up that day and took them to New Jersey, and now of course I’ve carried them back. In all that time I guess I never stopped to unwrap them. Why bother? They’d still be there whenever I got where I was going.
Which as it turns out, was back where they started, at the house in Lexington where we lived: three generations, my grandfather, my parents, my sister and I. The pictures do not include my grandfather; when she left this house, though, my mother took with her the photo of her own mother, dead by then more than 40 years. And she took the glamorous diptych of my sister and her son as a teenager … and one of me … and one of Owen as a little boy and one of David as a baby. And one of my father, that handsome, dashing guy she had married back in 1931.
This photo of Daddy, though, is not the young officer she wed in Washington, D.C. He’s older, and looks tired and a little worried – probably wondering why we are spending money on formal photos instead of food or good liquor – but still handsome, even with his receding hairline.
What was this man ever doing in a suit? He was so much more at home in tennis togs, crouching under tropical skies, playing with their little dachshund Gretel. And what was she doing, gazing off into the distance over the photographer’s shoulder with a hauteur that defies the viewer to question her modest sweater or the life she now finds herself in, married to a smart, capable alcoholic, living under her father’s roof, caught between two high-ranking Army officers who happen to be her husband and her father, trying to raise up two headstrong daughters who are much too smart for their own good and must be coaxed and coached to get into the requisite evening gowns and get out there and meet eligible young men.
But there is no picture of Mother in this collection. The photos themselves stand as a reproach – once again, and now almost 20 years after her death, she can still confront me with the anger, contempt and grief I felt from her when she accepted her consignment to that nursing home.
I am so sorry, Mommy – so sorry we couldn’t play out that solution where the dutiful daughter and her silent husband come home to care for the old folks. It just wasn’t happening in the generation you raised. We do what we can. I’ll find a place for the pictures.


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