Note to Our Readers: The Imaginary Family Project short story collection may occasionally contain adult themes or situations due to the framework of the project and the various paths our authors take. However, the content will not contain lewd or explicit material. We suggest that this particular entry is better suited for adult readers. Thank you ~ The Editor
External Photo Clues:
Samantha would kill me if she knew I had this photograph. She’s the one flinging her skirt around while Charlene, Nova Lea, Pauline and Jeanette, her 1948 senior classmates, egg her on. They’re standing in front of the old Dempsey High School building where Samantha cut a wide swath as a teenager. She has just whipped off her wrap-around skirt covering her “playsuit” as those blouse-and-shorts sets were called in the 1940’s. The matching skirt was to be worn in public for the sake of modesty. Only the most daring girls took off their skirts at school, because keeping them buttoned on was a condition of being allowed to wear them. (Come to think of it, that Jeanette was none too modest herself, huh?)
Anyway, she was a cut-up, that Samantha, my father’s youngest sister, my favorite aunt. All the girls at Dempsey High, wanted to be her friend. Every boy from the squeaky-voiced freshmen to the gruff, burly football players wanted to be her boyfriend. She was vivacious and funny, witty and clever, but also capable of deep thought and solemn earnestness. On rare occasions, even in the midst of frivolity, sadness would come over her face. This doesn’t seem as strange now as it did then, seeing as how things turned out.
Samantha did well in school, though no one ever saw her studying. She was valedictorian of her high school class. Not unexpectedly she won a scholarship to Southwestern State University in Weatherford. There, to her family’s surprise, she went into math and physics. She had never voiced any ambitions in this direction but she was good at it. She earned a Master of Science degree with honors. Before the ink was dry on it, she landed a teaching job at a junior college in New Mexico.
My grandmother was justifiably proud of Samantha but mentioned wistfully from time to time that she would like to see her youngest daughter find a suitable husband and “make a home.” This, to my Grandmother Della’s way of thinking was the real measure of a woman. Brains and public successes were just sidelines, so to speak. That’s how it was in our little rural community in Roger Mills County. Old mores, the frontier ethic, were still alive and well. Men had their roles to play; women had theirs. Not much deviation was tolerated for those who still wanted to “belong” to the closed society in our little pocket of provincialism.
Oh, they were more tolerant than in my grandmother’s day or Samantha would not have been allowed to attend a college and live on her own eighty-five miles from home. She would have had to sleep in her mother’s house every night. So, Samantha was lucky in that respect. Not that she would have let that stop her anyway, but it did allow her to do her thing and still be welcomed as part of the family and the community.
The other thing that bothered Grandmother as much as the infrequency of visits home was that Samantha was close mouthed about her life in those other places. She wasn’t exactly evasive when asked about anything specific, but she was skillfully discrete. She talked animatedly about the plays she saw, the parties she went to at the Student Union, but when you examined her words closely, you realized that she hadn’t really said anything about her true self. She never “confided” any bit of personal dreams or loves, or any one thing she felt deeply about. Never let slip the name of anyone who might be the object of her affections. Nor did she ever invite any of us to visit her. We only saw her in short bursts, snapshots, sound bites. It was like looking at her through a gauze curtain. Though you could see a bright light and hear the sound of dancing, no details were clear. This, too, frustrated my grandmother who said of it, “It’s not anything you can put your finger on.”
As the years rolled by, we saw less and less of Samantha. She came home only on major holidays and missed a few of those. Some years she even missed Christmas. When she did come, she was the old Samantha, mostly, but a kind of quietness began to creep into her. Though she was still fun loving, loquacious and witty, sometimes I caught her looking at all of us with a solemn eye when our attention was elsewhere. I chalked it up to getting older. After all, everyone has to grow up sometime, don’t they?
All my life, I had sought her attention in my timid way. I wanted her to notice me more than the others. That never happened. She was attentive to all of her nieces and nephews in a generic way, but never chose a special favorite. That’s what I wanted most: to be her favorite. I was devoted to her, I thought she was the most interesting person I knew, not just among my kinfolk, but in the whole world. I guess I had a “crush” on her.
In my third year at college, Grandmother Della suddenly died and the world seemed to wobble on its axis. Our anchor was dislodged with a jerk and we floundered for awhile before getting our family keel leveled and back under way.
Samantha appeared distraught at her mother’s funeral. Afterward she asked us to sit down immediately, go through the family photographs and divide them up. She quietly asked for all of the photos of herself. She fished out her school pictures back through elementary school at Dempsey, snapshots of her as a child, the graduation portrait taken in Elk City, every image of her she could ferret out in Grandmother’s house. She also asked for any photographs of her that anyone else had. She asked so plaintively that no one refused her. She gathered them up and left.
That is, all but this one I have. I didn’t intentionally keep it from her. I just happened to find it inside the book from which Grandmother read bedtime stories to me. I loved those stories, so I asked for the book not knowing the photo was lodged between its pages. I found it later as I leafed through the book before placing in on my own shelf. That’s how I came to have what may be the only photograph of Samantha as a prancing teenage girl.
By the time we had attended the formalities of loss and settled into a new life without Della, Samantha had disappeared. Well, that is, she “retreated” from our world.
First, she literally vanished for a few months. We received two, maybe three, letters from her telling us in a vague way that she was going through a “difficult time.” We supposed that meant she was adjusting to the loss of her mother, so we waited for her.
Almost a year after Della’s death, she tentatively started reconnecting: short notes with terse messages: “all’s well here in Santa Fe,” “hope to see all of you soon.” That sort of thing. No real news or clues to her state of mind.
My graduation was coming up, so I made a point of sending her an engraved invitation I ordered through the campus bookstore. To my surprise, she emailed me immediately saying she would be there. She asked which family members were coming, where they were staying, dates and times of gatherings. She was taking more interest in the family plans than I had ever seen her do before. I was more than a little puzzled.
The day before graduation my parents and brothers drove in from Oklahoma. I met them for dinner. My father asked if I had seen Samantha. I said I was sure she would be there because she had made such a point of learning everybody else’s plans and whereabouts.
We did not hear from her that night. Early the next morning she called and said she would meet us at the stadium. She asked the location of our seating. Her voice sounded somehow different but recognizable. It had been a long time since I had heard her speak and she seemed in a state of excitement, so I thought no more about the strangeness.
The ceremony went off without a hitch. From time to time I scanned the crowd to see if all the family had found each other but it was hard to tell from that distance. Though I never did make out Samantha, I assumed she found the family alright.
Afterward, I pressed through the crowd and made my way to the family, relieved that the formal part was over. As I approached my parents and the gaggle of aunts, uncles and cousins, I did not see the figure I was most wanted to see. Dad and Mom hugged me and as I broke away from my mother’s embrace, I saw a startling image I never imagined.
The dear face was there, yet everything was wrong. All the blood in my body seemed to rush to my head. I became so disoriented I had to grab my father’s arm to stay on my feet
Aunt Samantha stood before us with a trendy buzz haircut, a man’s suit and necktie, a flat chest, a faint shadow of beard. A beautiful woman was clinging to Samantha’s arm, smiling like a new bride.
What the hell was going on? Was this her idea of a joke? I felt something like a giant bubble rising in my throat. It burst out of my mouth as strange hysterical laughter. It was a long time before I could make it stop.
I don’t know how long we all stood as if we were planted in the ground, the crowd receding into the distance. My own mind was racing. I saw why the vagueness about details of her life all those years, biding her time until Della’s death, the months of isolation, confronting the family on neutral ground. Everything fell into place.
She stood quietly, her gaze never once faltering and let her eyes make contact with each of ours in turn. Looking directly at me, she said: “Your Uncle Sam has finally arrived.”
About The Author:
Dorothy Alexander is a poet and publisher of Oklahoma poets. She is a storyteller and editor of a regional genealogical journal. She is also working on a family memoir of her own family and a women’s history project in western Oklahoma where she was born and reared, and where she practiced law for over thirty five years.
About The Imaginary Family Project:
The 2011 Imaginary Family Project is a year-long collective art endeavor coordinated by occasional amateur artist Quentin Bomgardner and co-sponsored by The Red Dirt Chronicles. This project is based around “lost” vintage photographs, which have been acquired at flea markets, garage sales, estate sales, and eBay – heirloom collections, with no heir. Every week a different author will “find” one photograph by creating an imagined history around one of its subjects. At the end of the year, the collection will be compiled and presented as a group.