Photographs are profound and strange little things. When I look back on my life and the events it has contained, I do so in a way inescapably intertwined with the visual records imprinted on the 3×5 papers stored in the dusty and old family albums. I cannot imagine my mother as a child existing in anything but black and white, frozen with a knowing grin that would, from time to time, surface in my interactions with her as an adult. And though my memories of being in Cameroon as a young child with Aloysius, my older brother, are far too distant to be anything other than a manufactured memory, I have in my mind the sepia-toned recollections of him and I loving life and each other on a dusty apartment complex in Site’ Vert, Cameroon.
My grandmother died this morning. The event, we are told, took place in her sleep. Though this manner of exit is perhaps most merciful, I get the distinct impression that she would not have liked it. Though quick with jokes, she could be a difficult and cantankerous woman, and as such I cannot think that she would have liked going softly into the night without one last rage against the light’s dying.
I did not really know her until lately. Sure, she was around me growing up, but I knew her as a small child knows a grandparent. Only lately, when recent visits had given her the comfort that I was progressed enough in life to be treated as something more an equal did I learn the circumstances of her life and, by extension, the true contours of her character. In some long conversations over Yahtzee, she told me of her youthful days and her move to Los Angeles, where she had planned to be an actress. She lived off Melrose, and worked hard to improve her singing, performing around the city while waiting for her big break. Her photos from those days, cracked, brown and only slightly resembling the woman I knew, show a young beautiful woman seeming on the verge of something.
Then, she met a tall thin man some two decades her senior, with a fiancée to boot. A major studio had recently given her a screen test, and with Homer, my grandfather, soon to leave town on his railroad job, she faced a decision: stay for the screen test, and perhaps be in the movies, or join him on the next train north to Oregon. My existence is evidence of the choice she made. My grandfather died while I was still quite young, and the only real fact that I truly remember about him is that he liked to eat oatmeal and watch Good Morning America. He was simple, in the best sense of the phrase. Excavated photos of their life together always show him with an easy country smile, always thin, always tall; her, with more active and squinted eyes, clearly the more intellectually nimble of the two, with a sharp tongue to match.
These stories surprised me, and for some time afterward I had a hard time reconciling the young beautiful actress living alone in the big city with the old woman who went to church daily and bought me over-sized Hanes underwear for birthdays and Christmases. But, I suppose such is life: none of us are really ever all one thing or all the other. We are amalgams and chameleons. Though my grandmother told me about that sassy 19-year-old would-be starlet, I could never really know her. She was gone, left behind on a train platform in Glendale, California, exchanged for a life with Homer, three daughters, nine grandchildren, seven great-children and innumerable schnauzer dogs, replaced one after another when they died, and all named Sweetie.
One picture of my grandmother stands out in my mind. My mother took it on a vacation to the Oregon coast some 25 years ago. While watching my brother play, grandma stands, arms crossed, looking out. I don’t know why that picture strikes me. It certainly doesn’t fit with my recollections of her appearance –her hair is quite short. I think it is because, in some sense, she always had her arms crossed. Inscrutable and often evasive about the facts of her life, she preferred not to be known. She resisted divulging where she was or what she was doing before she turned up in Los Angeles, and inquiries into my family’s ethnic past reveal only that she thinks she has some Indian blood. I also wonder if, looking out as she did into the dark waters, she plays out alternate scenarios in her head about her choice to leave Los Angeles. Of course, counterfactuals yield their mysteries even more grudgingly than Helen herself, and she could never know.
Now, whatever thoughts or dreams she had are gone with her, and I, and we, are left with just the memories and mysteries. We will bury her, and a man with a Bible will speak with too much certainty about the places she now is, and the processes she is now undergoing under the protection of celestial beings. That immortality may or may not exist; who am I to know the contours of the shore on the other side of the dark waters? But, she lingers on in photos, and in the bits of her that are in my blood and matter. In time, the photos will fade, the people who are in them will also disappear, and her blood will diffuse. But for now, I will remember a cold summer day on an ocean beach not far from where I now sit, playing in the water with my grandmother, Helen.