Photographic Memory

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My paternal grandparents on their wedding day, 1950.

My paternal grandmother was in a car accident before I was born, or shortly after, which is why she had braces on her legs and walked with a crutch. Her maroon Buick was outfitted with a device that allowed her to drive using only her hands. She had been married two or three times, so her last name was different from ours, and every August she would take us, one at a time, back-to-school shoe shopping at a local shoe store called The Little Red School House. It was a squat building and dark inside, and although it was little, it was neither red nor a schoolhouse. Inside, a man with thick, nicotine-stained fingers that looked like my dad’s would press my socked foot into a cold metal cradle lined with black hatch marks to determine my shoe size. He always gave me a piece of hard Bazooka gum after ringing us up and then I would climb into the back seat of her modified car, sucking on the gum and then scraping the left-behind sugar from the Bazooka Joe comic strips with my teeth. We would go to Duchess for lunch, eat plain hot dogs and salty crinkle fries dipped in room temperature ketchup and my grandmother would ash her long Newports into the silver foil ashtray on the table.

I remember very little about the concrete facts of her life. I know she was from Rhode Island but I don’t know how she came to live in Connecticut. I don’t know how she met my grandfather or when they divorced. I do know she had three children and that my father was the youngest. I can’t recall where she worked or what her favorite food was. I can conjure up the image of the brick apartment building she lived in when we were small, that her couch was covered with a plastic slipcover, and that she collected bells and kept parakeets as pets.

I have a photograph of her and my grandfather, taken on their wedding day. It is one of those retouched old pictures, lightly painted, so it becomes something in-between a black-and-white photo and a color one. The hues are all pastel. Their teeth are very white. Nothing about it seems real, because the paint covers any natural lines and creases on their faces. When I look at it I see two young people I only knew as old people, people with traits that are familiar because they are mine, and foreign because they aren’t. As I stare at it longer I notice my grandmother’s left hand is curled, her fingers are pressing into her thigh. Why is she doing this? Was she nervous? What was she thinking about? This small pose makes me see the whole picture in a different way.

“A photograph’s punctum is that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me).” Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography

My grandmother slept over our house every Christmas Eve and would read us The Night Before Christmas before bed. She bought us red fleece one-piece “feetie-pajamas” and we would zipper ourselves in and line up neatly on the sofa. From far away, we probably looked like a holiday card. On Christmas morning my grandmother would watch us open gifts and then she would join us for Christmas dinner at my maternal grandparents’ house. She would follow us up their front stairs, one arm’s tricep cradled in the upper part of her crutch, her gait balanced by the weight of the overstuffed handbag slung over her other shoulder, where inside a dozen other cousins also called her Grandma Peggy, even though they weren’t related.

“The dominant ideology of the family, in whatever shapes it takes within a specific social context, superposes itself as an overlay over our more located, mutual, and vulnerable individual looks, looks which always exist in relation to [the]“familial gaze”—the powerful gaze of familiarity which imposes and perpetuates certain conventional images of the familial and which “frames” the family in both senses of the term.” –Marianne Hirsch, Family Frames: Photography, Narrative, and Postmemory

As time wore on and we grew up, I saw her less and less. I went several years or maybe a decade without visiting her at all. I don’t remember her at my father’s funeral, although I am sure she was there. I can’t recall whether we mailed each other holiday cards or if she ever called me on the phone. I do know that she developed emphysema but still smoked. That she had a stroke. That she had dementia. I also remember that she loved “Danny Boy” and I can still recall the sound of her laugh.

My mother is the one who called to let me know when my grandmother was in a nursing home not far from where I lived and that she was dying. I visited her on a chilly autumn evening. She was lying in a hospital bed with a corded remote. Her hands were in splints to prevent atrophy and she had tubes in her nose to help her breathe. Her skin was oddly smooth. She looked small and far away. I stood next to her bed and leaned over to kiss her forehead and say hello, my chubby infant resting on my hip, balancing my tilted frame. She looked up at me and smiled and called me by her daughter’s name and told me I had a pretty baby. He grabbed at her fingers and laughed.

 “Thus the life of someone whose existence has somewhat preceded our own encloses in its particularity the very tension of History.” –Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography