External Photo Clues:
After selecting a picture for the Imaginary Family Project, I decided to post an ad at an online genealogy web site to see if anyone recognized the photo. Much to my surprise I received a reply after only a few days. Maryanne Ponder, from right here in Oklahoma City, emailed me, saying that she thought the little boy in the tree was her husband’s Uncle Frankie. I asked to meet Mr. Ponder and she readily agreed, inviting me to their home. The following is a rough, phonetic where appropriate, transcription of the interview that resulted:
Michael (“M”): Thanks for meeting me.
Johnny Ponder (“JP”): No problem. It was a trip to see that picture.
M: You recognized the photo right away?
JP: Yeah. I saw it and said to myself, “ah man, that’s Uncle Frankie!!”
M: Mr. Ponder, before we continue do you mind if I record our conversation?
JP: Nah. And it’s JP. Everybody calls me JP.
M: O.K. JP. Thank you. Now JP you understand that I am working on a story for the Imaginary Family Project.
JP: Yeah. Well. I mean I remember you saying you were working on a project. But I don’t remember the name. That’s fine though.
M: So this is your Uncle Frankie?
M: Did you know him well?
JP: Oh yeah. Everybody knew Uncle Frankie. But ya know, he raised me and all, so I knew him better than others I suppose. But I was sixteen or seventeen when he died.
M: Let me get back to that. Was he an uncle by marriage or…?
JP: He was my Dad’s older brother. My dad died when I was seven, and my mom ran off not too long after that.
M: I didn’t mean to pry.
JP: It’s o.k. If you’re gonna write about him, you got to understand why I was so close to my Uncle Frankie. As I was saying, Mom would drop me off to school, and Granny would pick me up at the end of the day. I’d stay with Granny ’til Mom got off work. ‘Cept one day Mom never came to pick me up. Granny went to our house and all Mom’s clothes were gone. We never heard from her again. So my uncle Frankie and Granny raised me.
M: Did you have any other family?
JP: Only Granny. She lived with Frankie and I.
M: How old is your grandmother now?
JP: She ain’t. She died five years ago.
M: I’m sorry.
JP: It’s o.k. She had a good run, lived a good life.
M: How old was she when she died?
JP: 85. She slipped away in her sleep just a few days after her 85th birthday. She died at home in her room right over there.
M: So she lived with you?
JP: Always has. Least I could do was take care of her.
M: Your wife didn’t mind?
JP: Not all. She loved Granny. Everyone did.
M: She’s a lovely woman.
M: I was referring to your wife actually, but I’m sure…
JP: Oh. Yeah. It’s damn near unfair how she’s got the looks and the brains in this house.
M: So about your Uncle Frankie. He died when you were sixteen? He must have been young.
JP: Yeah. It was 1978. He was born in ’39. So I guess he was about 39.
M: Was he sick?
JP: He had a bad heart, like his Dad. He dropped dead while dancing at a honky-tonk out by Chickasha.
M: Is that what killed your Dad, a bad heart?
JP: Nah. Dad died in Vietnam. Uncle Frankie couldn’t serve on account of his heart. Granny’s father was a Marine. There’s a lot of soldiers way back on my Granny’s side. But Grandpa couldn’t serve. So Dad volunteered.
M: What about your Mom’s family?
JP: Don’t know nothing about them. According to Granny, Mom was an only child and her parents disapproved of her marrying Dad. After he died they stopped coming ’round. Last I heard from them was a letter or card I got when I graduated high school.
M: Did you ever try to find your mother, or reconnect with her family?
JP: No. Why should I? Most animals have a need to care for their young. Those that don’t are either primitive, like fish or a frog, or they ain’t wired right. I got no use for anyone who don’t love and care for children, especially their own children. My family especially.
M: How ’bout your Uncle? Did he marry? Or have any kids?
JP: [chuckling]…Oh no! Frankie wasn’t the marrying type. Every few weeks Franky would have a new car and a new girl-friend. They used to say that Pastor might have a few strays out there. I doubt that though. He took good care of me, and helped raise me right. I think he knew his time was short, and didn’t look to leave a widow. But he did love the ladies.
M: So he was a preacher?
JP: [still chuckling]…Nah. He was a car guy, a natural salesman. Frankie could sell a beer to a drowning man. But they called him “the Pastor” ‘cuz he could make you believe.
M: Believe what?
JP: Anything. Whatever he wanted you believe. He was like one of those hypnotists. He’d smile at you, size you up, start chatting away and the next thing you know you’ve bought a new car, or was mowing his lawn, or was going home with him…whatever he needed at the time. A few minutes later you’d be wondering what happened, time you were still somehow sure that you’d be missing out on something if you didn’t take his advice.
M: Smooth talker eh?
JP: The smoothest.
M: So what can you tell me about this picture?
JP: Oh I dunno. Never seen it before, ’til Maryann showed it to me on her computer. But it’s definitely Frankie, and it reminded me of a story that Granny used to tell about Frankie.
M: So you might be able to tell me about the day it was taken?
JP: Oh I duuno fer sure. But Granny used to say that the girls always liked Frankie, and that one day some girl would tree ‘im fer good.
JP: Yeah I know.
M: I’m sorry.
JP: It’s o.k. He was kind of a goofy looking kid, and downright homely when he grew up…all lanky with a big ol’ Adam’s apple and bulgy eyes. But, like I said, he was a smooth talker, always knew what you wanted to hear. Plus he was a sharp dresser. Look at what he’s wearing here in this pic, with those slick shoes and the six shooter stitched on his leg. I remember him saying that, with a face like his, he had to dress nice lest anyone get a good look at ‘im.
M: So you’re Granny had a story…
JP: Yeah. She used to tell a story about these twin girls that chased Frankie up a tree.
M: He didn’t get that far.
JP: He don’t look that scared either. But the way Granny told it these twins, two little blond girls in Frankie’s class…well…lemme start over. Frankie must have been in the third grade or so. They went on a field trip one day, and stopped for lunch at a park. These twin sisters, Frankie liked them, and would chat them up all the time. At Frankie’s school, maybe all schools back then, the boys and the girls didn’t sit together at lunch, had class and recess separate. Ya know didn’t spend a lot of time together. But on this picnic he got to eat lunch with the girls, and sat down by these sisters. Frankie had a sweet tooth, but he liked girls even more, so he gave ’em the piece of cake that his momma put in his lunch.
M: The way to a girl’s heart.
JP: Yeah. Maybe. I dunno. I always had luck dancing. That’s how I met my wife. The less I talk the more she likes me.
M: You might be on to something.
JP: [chuckling] Well…anyway…those girls were a handful. They got Uncle Frankie alone for a minute, behind the bus. Granny said they cornered him. But you can see in this pic there’s little to nothing out there ‘cept picnic tables and blackjacks. But at that age Frankie was probably more bark than bite. So though he let himself git cornered, he ran like the wind when those sisters kissed him on the cheek. So he was looking for a place to hide, and scrambles up this tree here. So his teacher sees him up in this tree and tells him to get down. And Uncle Frankie says “not til them girls let me be.” Granny said that his teacher was so tickled at ‘im that she took a picture. But I’d never seen it. This could be that picture.
M: So were the girls still chasing Frankie when he died?
JP: Where did you find this picture?
M: I’m not certain. But most of the photographs for the project come from garage sales or estate sales. Perhaps this was bought from Uncle Frankie’s teacher or someone in her family. Back to the question though, were the girls still…
JP: Oh yeah. We always thought that some jealous b/f, or protective father would get Frankie. Granny would always ask Frankie, “have those girls let you be?” He’d grin and say “not yet Ma!” But it was heart that got ‘im. Ya know [a sigh and a long pause] I swear Uncle Frankie was grinning just like this in his casket, as if the caretaker couldn’t wipe the grin off his face…[chuckle]…I miss Uncle Frankie.
Some photos tell an entire story. In the composition, in an expression, and the light a thousand words are captured. But there are other photos that give you only a glimpse of a character, or a story, that is years in the making and bigger than any photograph can depict. This is one of those kind of photos.
The boy in that tree was, JP’s Uncle Frankie, and these several hundred words here are a mere introduction to a short, but full life, an early moment of which has been preserved.
My thanks to JP, and his generosity.
About The Author:
Mike has this to say: “Why not? I’ve a bit of spare time this summer, taking the semester off from teaching. Perhaps Jack White is right and structure is the key to creativity (at least for undisciplined slobs like me).”
Authoring For The Imaginary Family Project:
We are not taking new author request at the moment, but will open it back up later this year. Thanks!
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.