External Photo Clues:
With all my moving across this wide open mid-western country for near sixty years one would think I’d have organized something about my life. Every time I unload a moving truck into bedrooms and kitchens I am amazed at the boxes I’ve not opened since my last move. In the unused study the boxes rise against the wall. I’m not running from anything because I carry it with me, sealed in plastic cases and shoe boxes.
My last move five months ago landed me as a library assistant in a small town in Oklahoma bordered by miles of ranch land. All the major county roads are lined with fence posts and barbed wire, and the black cows are scattered alongside a creek snaking through a field almost barren of trees. There’s something peaceful about gazing across flat land at a lone tree and a cloudless blue sky stretched like a blanket above my head. And as I gaze for too long and become lost in my thoughts, the tree becomes a stranger staring back at me until I lose the contest, look away, awed by the ache of quiet.
Two weeks ago a woman came in the library with a stack of papers and a photo album. She made herself at home by the genealogical reference books for a few days. While photocopying from a county history, she told me that her grandfather had died a month earlier and while going through his books she found notes on the family tree. Her voice began to crack with her excitement in finding this window into who her grandfather had become. So she browsed the internet, printed pages from ancestry websites, and became frustrated from time to time. She studied the books and jotted notes with such an energy I soon became jealous of her passion. The torch had been handed down and there was no way in hell she was going to let the flame die.
I spent all day thinking about that lady and her grandfather. The relationship reminded me of my grandmother. So when I arrived home, dropped the keys on the table with her framed picture, I opened the unused office and studied the unopened boxes stacked with their Sharpie notes of places or contents: Bellevue, Taos, Missoula, Holly Springs, letters, college, high school, photographs. I pulled the box of letters from the wall and sat on the floor so I could spread its contents out on the hardwood. Birthday cards from uncles and aunts, brief letters from college friends, newspaper clippings of my published articles laminated by my mom’s best friend, and my grandmother’s letter.
I opened it and then I remembered the first time I’d opened this envelope. I was ten years old then. In with the letter was a photograph of me around four years old, a smiling little girl peering down from the top of a metal slide, anticipating the rush. Grandma took my photo. It was a hot day. A drought was settling over the state it seemed; It had been over three weeks since we’d had rain. But Grandma and I were soaking up the sun and sweat at the children’s park by the lake. My hair was a frizzy haystack on my head, but I hardly noticed I was hot and thirsty. Grandma seemed soft and fragile, but she smiled at me as she watched me climb the ladder and waved at me to wait for the picture.
We spent a lot of time together that summer. Dad was in Korea and Mom was in bed a lot or sitting on the couch staring out the window. She looked sad and the house was encased in a silent vigil. I would bring my dolls in the den and play with them by the hearth, but she didn’t pick one up and play the adult in my brief fantasies. I didn’t know the danger of war my father faced and how it worried my mother. So Grandma came for the summer. She and I went to the park often to play and to the farmers’ market for fresh tomatoes, green beans, and we ate our apples as we walked home. We would take evening strolls around the neighborhood just after sunset. What I loved best was when she would hold my hand as we walked. Her hands were so soft.
Grandma would point out the birds to me and tell me their names: blue jay, cardinal, mockingbird, finch, robin. Every time she said robin I’d say “early bird catches the worm” because I’d heard someone say the proverb. “Yes,” Grandma said, “Yes, you do, Robin.”
I’d forgotten about the picture. It seemed like Grandma was radiating something like love towards me. I knew it was the sunlight refracting in the lens, but it felt like she knew she would leave soon.
I opened the letter, flattening the creases out across the floor. I didn’t remember much of what it said after the first time I read it. I was only ten when I found it addressed to me in my mother’s dresser drawer. I had read it quickly and hid it back beneath the slips and stockings. I found it again after Mother died, but I was too busy packing up her house and packing up my own things for another move to another town. Maybe I didn’t recognize it. Maybe I didn’t want to remember what it said.
October 7, 1952
Robin, dearest child,
I’ve had the most wonderful summer with you, precious. I’m grateful we had a chance to be together and share the simple beauty around us. Spending that time with you was the greatest gift this life gave me.
I hope you will remember the day I took this picture of you in the park. You slid down that slide maybe ten times before I convinced you to walk with me home. The heat that day was exceptional. I was beginning to feel weak in the knees. My illness was getting the best of me, but I didn’t tell you I was sick. No need to worry you. There is plenty about the world you will experience soon enough. The doctors found the cancer in May and told me it was moving quick through my body. I chose to not take the medicine they suggested. I’d lived a long life. I’d been in love. I’ve grieved the death of my husband in the first great war. I’ve raised two wonderful children, your father and your aunt. I’ve held my own. I’ve traveled and seen enough of this world for now. Having spent this summer with you was the cherry on top of my ice cream sundae.
I love you, dear Robin, and I want you to remember to always be the early bird. Sunrises are just as glorious as sunsets, but even better because they are like being at the top of that park slide. You’re looking down anticipating the emotions, the stories, the feeling of sliding through the day and the ultimate satisfaction of having experienced something grand. Living. And you’ll experience a whole new sunrise tomorrow. Don’t forget that, dear child.
I love you, little bird,
Your Grandma Ava
About The Author:
Laura Anne Heller is a poet, photographer, and music enthusiast. Originally from Mississippi, she moved to Oklahoma City in 2008 for work. In two years she’s fallen in love with the music radiating out of Oklahoman roots, and she’s published five poems in the anthology, Ain’t Nobody That Can Sing Like Me: New Oklahoma Writing, published by Mongrel Empire Press in 2010. She’s looking forward to what the wind blows in.
Authoring For The Imaginary Family Project:
Are you interested in “finding” one of our lost vintage photos by authoring a story?
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Imaginary Family Project Author Request Form
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.