Salome Magazine
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LAce Posted Monday, February 24th, 2003
Grandmother's Pictures
Jocelyn Johnson

When I married my long time love and best friend, Billy, I also gained a grandmother. My official induction into the family included an overnight stay at Grandmother's house. Once inside, I avoided Grandmother's collection of freakish porcelain dolls whose eyelids slide closed at the slightest provocation. I listened for the high solitary whistle of the parakeet, caged and hidden under an old t-shirt. And I marveled at Grandmother's pictures.

Born Francis Daniels, my new grandmother has 75 years to my 31. She is big and wrinkled and pink where I am narrow and smooth and brown. A child of The Depression, Grandmother married poorly into abuse and sharecropping. She bore ten children in rapid succession before leaving her marriage behind and the harvest in the ground.

By the mid-sixties, Grandmother had joined other divorcees in becoming a first time homeowner. Never before had these scandalous women been permitted to buy something so big, so permanent in their North Carolina community. Forty years later, I find myself at the threshold of this same home.

Grandmother beckons me inside with a ferocity wider than her narrow sitting room and sunnier than her azalea garden. Beyond the faux-leather Laziboy, over the mosaic of throw rugs, she pulls me into her study.

The study is full of 40 years worth of framed pictures.
Children and grandchildren frozen in time.
Generations unfolding onto themselves.

Even beyond kinship and shared features, broad themes connect the lives in these photographs. Early portraits are round and rosy and wet. Then come images of lanky boys and awkward girls. Still later were the obligatory graduation photos. Young men and women obediently tilting their heads, glowing in a diffused otherworldly light--Olan Mills in a gold diagonal across the corners.

Lining the wall of the study in a rough grid, the subjects of the photographs seem so open and exposed. I stand before them, a voyeur.

"That's Randy, thar in that won," Grandmother drawls, coming up behind me. "That was when he was in the service." I look at a tilted framed image of her youngest son.

"And that thar is my granddaughter, Jenny, when she wus just 19. She looked so pretty. Just like a model," Grandmother beams "...fore she got fat." She shakes her head softly.

Sure enough, over a buffet of banana pie and the kind of meatballs that come in crock-pots, Jennifer confirms this.

"I use to be skinny b'fore I had my little girl," she confesses.

Later I catch her looking, wistful as Narcissus, at her own framed image. She imitates the militant tilt of her senior portrait, but the effect isn't the same. Then she is torn away by the laugh of her own little girl. My eyes fall on a bright two year old who is shaking one of Grandmother's porcelain dolls. Like a parent with Munchausen Syndrome, the little girl performs for the consoling coos of the adults surrounding her.

You can always get skinny again, I think to myself looking at Jenny's lost curves. But I am foolish with pie and soda. The pictures right in front of us offer a different truth. They show that we grow older and bigger. Forced smiles betrays our fears and struggles. And, if we are lucky, we get a chance to thrust our own children towards the eye of the camera in sick fascination (before our own image).

Later, sifting though a pile of snapshots, I uncover an old picture of my husband's mother at twenty. Inside the photo's white borders she smiles sweetly. Her milky skin glows and her white blond bob ends gracefully in a soft sixties flip. The picture shows her to be stunning, and pictures do not lie. I am told that as college homecoming queen, she rode on a float with Ray Charles, but it is by her image that I am star struck.

"She was so beautiful," I gasp. The was flits around in the air for a few seconds tickling ears of everyone around. No one says it, but at that moment we are all realizing the same thing. Pictures remind us all of our fading selves.

I have trained myself to guard against the prints of women on the cover of Cosmo. I tell myself that the perfect skin and seductive stares in those images are fantasies that have little to do with me. But in Grandmother's house, I wonder if we should all be more vigilant of our own portraits. As we grow and change these pictures tease us and accuse us. They remind us of better (and worse) times. They show us what we could and should and hoped to be.

The following morning, we wake to find that Grandmother has made the paper. Local Women Celebrates Retirement with 10 Children after 25 Years, the headline reads. A picture accompanies the article. In black and white, Grandmother is smiling as her granddaughter hands her a large engraved plaque. There is a symmetry in the image, a balance of beginnings and endings.

Before we leave, we stand at the screen door, our bags at our feet. We hug everyone. We say our goodbyes. We hug Grandmother last, pressing our hands into the soft warm rolls of her back. She kisses us hard on the cheeks, leaving pink lipstick stains. We promise to call, we promise to send notes and cards. We promise to send more pictures:

Us getting married underneath the magnolia tree in our front yard.
Us on our travels-
in India,
in Brazil,
at the trail head of a dusty path leading into the Himalayas.

These photographs live in Grandmother's study, quiet, obedient and full of adventure. They don't ask for anything. They don't bring too much luggage or require pallets on which to sleep. Maybe these pictures are the best parts of us.

Captured in black and white.
We are
In special places.
In good light.

Comments [post a comment]

Posted by Lela Schneidman on Wednesday, February 26th, 2003 at 7:40 PM
this is such a wonderful piece of writing. your eloquent descriptions of aging skin, youth captured on film, and beauty that not so much fades as it does change...i am really impressed with this lovely work of art. especially as it turns into a poem. great job, jocelyn!

Posted by Amanda French [ ] on Saturday, April 5th, 2003 at 2:01 PM
I'm teary. Which I love to be, in a good cause.

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