The old adage that a picture is worth a thousand words really means something to me. If you were to tour my house you’d understand how seriously I take my photos. We have a long hallway that intersects with a shorter one and there’s only a bit of room left to hang more.
There are others scattered about, sitting on our mantle piece, hanging on another’s rooms wall. Some of them are of family that I never even knew. My paternal grandmother’s family. My husband’s grandparents and an uncle that passed before we got married. Every photo has a memory, a story connected and the people in them are a part of me. Of course, our daughter’s life is chronicled in photos.
There is one photograph though that has always been missing. It hung on my paternal grandmother’s wall for as long as I can remember. I used to stare at it every time we went to visit and my grandmother would repeat the story of the day it was made. In it I am a newborn, my parents were 19 (mother) and 20 (father). Off to the side watching the event was my paternal grandfather, Grandpa Tollie.
Who knows why, exactly, but I was told Grandpa Tollie was crazy over me. Could have been that I was the first grandchild. Could have been because I was a girl. My grandparents had boys, no girls. Could be because I was cute as a newborn. I don’t know, that’s the story I was told.
Anyway along with the 8×10″ picture of me with my parents was a smaller one in the upper right corner of my father and mother on the day they were married.
My grandmother promised me I could have that picture one year when I was in high school and she was alive and well. She said, “When I die I want you to have that picture.” Granny told my parents and she told the other aunts and uncles there too. Later, when she was very ill and I came home to see her she repeated that promise.
I left my home state when I finished college so I only saw Granny a couple times after that move. Every now and then one of us would call each other. Or I would write her a letter. But, I knew her intentions about that photograph. I knew she remembered.
After the funeral I asked my dad about it. He said he didn’t know so he’d ask. When he came home he told me that when they’d build Granny a new home on the same land she’d lived for decades the brothers (her sons) had built it smaller. She’d had to downsize and that picture was thrown away.
Even then it made no sense to me. But, it was gone. What was I to do?
Close to thirty plus years later, the picture pops up in my text messages. It was sent by someone else in my family. There was no “who do you think this baby is” or “is this the picture you’ve talked about”? Just a “look what I got”. No mention then, that if the baby wasn’t them they would give it to whoever it was. No mention of a copy at that point. That indicated to me they thought the picture was of my parents with them. It was like being slapped on both sides of my face and gut punched at the same time. What? No. That was me in the photograph. Further more it was my picture.
The “new owner” said, no that this photo wasn’t Granny’s it was my aunts. I quickly explained. There were only two copies of that picture. One belonged to my mother and the other to my grandmother. Mama’s had burned up in our first house fire when I was four. That was Granny’s photo and she’d promised it to me.
Suddenly I also realized that an entire room full of people, who’d heard her wishes twice, had flat out lied to me. That picture wasn’t destroyed. And why my aunt even wanted it boggled my mind. Or did my dad just lie?
This was the tip of an iceberg that led to a big arguement. I tried to be calm. I did. Yet, I also knew I’d spoken with this particular person, now angry with me, more than a few times about this photograph.
Later, someone would say concerning our disagreement that it was, “over a PICTURE, just a picture” No. Oh, no, no, no. It wasn’t about a mere picture.
We’re talking a photo that is 56 years old and counting. You’re talking about one tangible piece of my life that tied me to my parents, my Grandpa Tollie and Granny. A lot of life happened to that tiny baby.
It was also about the lies. The out and out lies. All the lies. Every single one of them came to the surface and I was so over it. A lifetime of lies. That’s what our family felt reduced to.
My dad was a champion liar. World class. To the outside world, beyond our home’s walls, my Dad was known by some as a generous, kind man. To them he’d loan money or pay for big ticket items for while his own family didn’t always have adequate food or mother had to figure out how to cover our bills. He’d let her fret over paying the utility bills or mortgage and he just kept telling her we didn’t have it. Then an hour before the bank or utility company would close he’d pull out hundred dollar bills. “Had it all along,” he’d say. He was a man who refused to let anyone know his oldest daughter and child had been molested. Refused her the help she needed to deal with all that aftermath. Telling her instead it was her fault. At seven-years-old it was her fault.
Or he was known as mean spirited man by the others in the community. One who cheated people, undercut them, lied to them, got them a job and then got them fired to prove he had the clout. Who gloated in their misery.
Whatever happened at home, his angry rages, his hitting our mother, his hitting us, our financial woes we knew never to mention to anyone. Not family. Not friends. No one at church. No, my father had two faces and we knew the angry face and actions all to well. If it wasn’t physical, especially as we grew older, it was psychological and emotional.
We really believed we’d hid our secrets well, but we hadn’t. The community knew. At his funeral I can’t count the times people came to me and said, “We knew what he did to y’all and your mother. But back then you didn’t intervene.” They all knew. No one helped us.
I have kept my mouth shut. Out of respect for initially, the two uncles we still had living and later for the last surviving one. Also, for my cousin who thought Uncle Gene was a kindhearted man. I thought they surely didn’t know who my father really was, or they would have stepped in. I thought up until then that the things my father used to tell us about what his family said about us were exaggerations. He was a liar. I knew that. But, years of therapy and talking to God I forgave, thinking I could forgive but not give him or others the the power to hurt me again.
The picture surfaced and I’ve realized that maybe Daddy wasn’t the only liar in our family. Had they said the things he said they said? Did they really hate our mother and therefore us too? Did Granny really love her other grandkids more than us? Did they really see me as “stuck up”? Or worse?
Who knows? Maybe the whole story behind that picture is a lie too. That’s the problem with lies. You can never be sure who to trust, who to believe. But, even so, that picture will always belong to me regardless of whose wall it hangs on.
Just a picture? No. It will never be just a picture. I am grateful for a digital picture of a picture though. Do I regret the argument that happened shortly after that photo landed in my text box? Yes. I deeply regret that I couldn’t rise above my heartbreak to be kinder, more understanding, to be satisfied with a copy.
Yet, the whole argument isn’t about the photo. Even I realize that but I can only control myself.
That’s nothing to lie about and I’m not going to.