A thousand words are worth a picture.
June 29, 2013 § 4 Comments
There is no photo, except in my mind. A family portrait in sepia, and a voice, an old voice, recounting a day long gone:
It isn’t in the picture, but beneath the photographer’s feet was a rare dusting of snow on the frozen grass, spring taking it’s time that 1895 April in Natchez, Mississippi.
You can see we are all still wearing our woolen winter leggings, even Mama and the aunts, although their skirts hide everything above the ankle.
That’s me, Amsy, in the middle of the bottom step, in the middle of the boys, in the middle of the picture. I hold Rastus and Remus, the tiger kittens. Both lived to be fifteen, which is long in cat years, but it took them just a short way into the new century, while I’ve traipsed nearly clean across it.
That’s Aaron on my left. He died in the trenches in the Great War not too many years after Rastus and Remus, one after the other, crawled under the porch and quietly died. Wish it could have gone as easy for Aaron.
Neddy’s on my right. He holds the tabby kitten that fell from the barn roof day after this picture was taken. The kitten had a name, which I forget. Neddy could’ve told you, but he died in ‘64. Heart attack.
Marcus, who sits, hands on knees, next to Aaron, is wearing Neddy’s hand-me-down boots. Even in the photo you can tell they’re too tight. His too-short breeches were Neddy’s too. Marcus went on to be a clothier in Philadelphia, probably to make sure his body was the first his clothing touched.
He died in a warehouse fire, in ‘58. Maybe it was set, maybe it wasn’t. They investigated, but never found out for sure.
One step up, is the row of aunts beginning on the left with Esther, the eldest of my mother’s four sisters. She willed me that diamond brooch she’s wearing because she never had any girls of her own, boys either for that matter.
I tried to hock it once during the Depression and the man said the stones were paste but that he would take it off my hands because I had family to feed. I told him nobody in my house was that hungry.
Aunt Liddy comes next. her chin high. She was ambitious, and on the whole, kind of mannish. She kept sickly old relatives and puny children alive with her stubbornness, her remedies, and her common sense. She would’ve made a fine doctor, but the times didn’t allow it.
Next to her, and just a smidge shorter is Aunt Beth who crocheted enough afghans to smother the Kaiser’s entire army, and beside her, Aunt Eloise whose main specialty was jarring pickles.
Grandmother Fields sits on the top step. As you can see, she gave that disapproving mouth to all her daughters except one, that mouth drawn straight across the faces of all four of Mama’s sisters. Held like that, the lips are thin, and end with a deep gouge at each corner. Only on mama does that gouge soften into a dimple.
As you can see from the picture. only mama got a husband.
There are so many faces in this photo, but in my mind the aunts and grandmother are just so much bric-a-brac. It’s smiling Mama and handsome Papa seated on the bottom step, and the four children they frame that make the picture.
Though we shared a house I mostly remember running away from the calls of Grandmother Fields and Mama’s spinster sisters, “Amsy? Where is that child?” and the screen door slapping shut behind me.
There is just one other face that counts, small and separate. At the far back of the picture, the low angle sun lighting her broad face like fire reflected on a copper kettle, and that face is Viney’s. She wouldn’t smile. She didn’t think it proper that she be in the Fields’ family photo at all.
I didn’t think about it at the time, but she had a family of her own I suppose. She went somewhere every evening after she fed my brothers and myself our supper, but we weren’t overly curious about her life outside our home. She was like a candle that, as far as we were concerned, was snuffed out when not burning brightly for us.
I never knew about the babies she went home and fed, always so late. Sometimes Mama permitted her to take leftovers if she brought the china bowls back, always our second-best.
Looking at her now, standing with us, but so alone behind the gathered Fields clan I realize that in our midst she was always in eclipse, her true self hidden behind a placid expression. Took me a long time to wonder who she was outside our home, and by then it was too late. And so she remains just our Viney.
Of all those gathered on the porch in their teeming numbers, there are none but me left.
Funny, I can still feel the warm weight of Rufus and Rastus on my lap, still see the dusty scrim of snow under the photographer’s feet as he instructed us to smile. Those of us who were inclined to, did.
And the magnesium powder flashed, blinding all of us in the moment.