External Photo Clues:
A ninety- three year old man sitting in a wheelchair by the walkway in front of the old folks’ home. He’s nervously rubbing his nubby hand which, due to an accident at the old saw mill, hadn’t had five fingers on it since he was fourteen. His “claw”, he would laugh and pat his soft half two fingers with the left good hand. “WAR wasn’t interested in me on count of not enough shootin’ fingers. Hell don’t bother me none, never really cared for IT neither.” He is waiting for someone but growing impatient as he looks up at the library clock next door. “I don’t know why they put this damn concrete everywhere, nobody uses sidewalks anymore anyway! Everybody drives cars nowadays sept you!” He cried to the young woman running hurriedly towards him.
My Aunt Claire always teetered between legend and black sheep in our family. A few old black and white pictures of her stowed away in shoe boxes and envelopes seemed to be her permanent residence at my Granny Vida’s house. Growing up, I always wondered why she wasn’t framed and sitting on the piano alongside other dead relatives I had only met through stories passed down through the years. Almost as if she had never existed. Until one day, buried at the back of my Grandmothers’ closet, I came across this picture in an aged coffee can along with several crumbly newspaper clippings, a Cracker Jack tin horse, some marbles and the big truth about Aunt Claire.
Aunt Claire wasn’t actually a member of the family so to speak and was surely reminded of it every day for the handful of years she came to live with my great grandma and grandpa when she was twelve years old. It was the summer of 1926 in Shawnee, Oklahoma. Nobody in the neighborhood could tell for sure who actually dropped Claire off at the house on Park Street although all the windows lining the block were filled with curious neighbors gawking at the suspicious black Ford with mysterious plates. As the car drove away, it left a young girl and soon following a swarm of nosy phone calls, rumors whispered at neighborhood barbeques and later angry accusations.
Uncle George was nine years old then and for the life of him had never met a girl who could whip every boy on the street, spit watermelon seeds as far as Hades or wrestle like the Devil himself. “That girl was born shaking her fist, full of piss and vinegar” Granny Vida used to say . No kid in their right mind would try to kiss her except Uncle George, which on several occasions landed him in an inescapable headlock and a good shiner to boot. That’s also the summer he learned a new and exciting vocabulary that got him uncountable lickins with a switch from the willow tree behind the house and mouthfuls of soap. Based on these few bits and pieces of information, Aunt Claire seemed to be more a force of nature that ruffled everybody’s feathers rather than the lonely little girl she was. The little girl I would come to know better when I went to visit my Uncle George at Golden Estates in Ada.
I swear he got younger by 50 years when I ran up to him and apologetically gave him a kiss on his wrinkly cheek. When he spotted the coffee can I was carrying he touched my hair with his soft “claw” and without taking his wide eyes off my new found treasure, whispered “Claire.”
Claire had been working at the diner on Main Street cleaning and doing dishes but would sneak out the back to meet Uncle George in their usual spot behind the storage shed. They would dream together thrilling adventures or play with the puppies who had taken up temporary residence there with their stray mamma. Uncle George had just gotten his Boy Scout Kodak camera for his birthday and couldn’t wait to show Claire. “She didn’t like it one bit” he laughs now as he holds the image of her in both hands. “She’d been cleaning the griddle when I stopped by the cafe and her hair was all messed up…Oh, I didn’t mind. Her hair was the color of fire burning through a sunset at dusk. She was crying when I came to the back screen door, never did find out why.”
The yellowing brittle papers unfolded on his aging lap brought him back to the day of the photograph and through his words, took me with him.
As they sat there that day, Claire revealed her plan for their biggest adventure of all. She handed him a bunch of newspaper clippings. Headlines such as “Annie Edson Taylor Niagra’s Maiden of the Mist” and “Jean Lussier Amazing Feat Over Niagra Falls.” Uncle George had read about that Lussier fella, floating light as a feather down the Niagra last 4th of July.
“What in Sam Hil you getting at Claire?”
“Annie Taylor was 63 when she went over The Falls, if she can do it so can I, I’m only 15! Won’t you help me George dear, please? Let’s leave this place, go anywhere. We can take the Canadian River down to the Rio Grand and then down to Mexico. We can sleep under the stars just like Lewis and Clark and live off the land. We can leave tonight after your sister Vida and Mamma go to bed.”
Uncle George loved pretending with Claire but this time she looked more serious than usual.
“We don’t have a boat! Are we gonna swim down the river smarty pants!” Gee wiz girls could be so unpractical sometimes.
“We’re sitting on them stupid!” The stars that had been swimming in her eyes suddenly vanished as reality snapped her back with all the dumb questions she had to deal with. So difficult being the older more mature person in the relationship.
Uncle George realized she meant their worthy sea vessels were none other than the empty pickle barrels they had been sitting on over the last few years. He had no problem pretending they were beautiful Arabian stallions chasing the sheik who had kidnapped his Sahara bride or fight off Indians while hunting buffalo but float down the river to Mexico? She was off her rocker!
If only he had known what was soon to come…. The days that followed were like a hazy tornado stringed with firsts, lasts and a whole lot of yelling. The First kiss. The last time he held Claire’s hands in his before being pulled away in a tearful goodbye. The first time Doctor Wilson came to help Mamma sleep. The first time he heard Mamma use naughty words. The first time he saw Vida so angry she was pulling her hair out. The last time he saw the strange black Ford with the mysterious plates with his beautiful redhead gazing hopelessly back at him as it drove away. She got smaller and smaller till she was only a tiny black speck at the end of the road. The last time he would ever see Claire again. He wondered what all the fuss had been about seeing as it had all vanished almost as fast as it had started.
Eighty years had passed but as my Uncle George told me the story a few tears barreled down his face and for a fleeting moment I saw in his eyes, a memory of what might have been.
About The Author:
Chrissie Breedlove was born in Shawnee, Oklahoma October 1, 1976. She grew up living a tomboy’s dream in the countryside of Bethel Acres, Oklahoma where her favourite past times included riding her bike, stealing cigarettes from her dad, rolling around in mud puddles and talking to trees. After highschool graduation, Chrissie, moved to Norman, Oklahoma and resided there for many glorious years until her gypsy heart got the best of her. She sold all her belongings and moved to Switzerland temporarily to work as an aupair. Eight years later she is still living in Biel, Switzerland where she teaches English at a private language school and within the watch industry. Over the years she has had the fortunate opportunity to travel to many countries throughout Europe, India and Mexico where she enjoyed staying with local people and trying her hand in cooking local cuisine. There are still many places she would like to visit including South America, Africa and China but being an Okie at heart, she goes home once or twice a year to see family and friends.
Authoring For The Imaginary Family Project:
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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.