Monday, November 24, 2008

Posing for Pappy

I have a copy of a photograph of my last remaining grandparent, Avis, whom we refer to as "Nana" and who is now in her early 90s.

It's a photo of her in her 30s and her arm is resting on the hood of a pick up truck in a field of swaying, waist-high grass. A pick up truck that you would see at a collector's show today, all shiny and refurbished and loved to a sparkling sheen.

In the photo she wears a sleeveless dress with a buttoned collar. Her hair - she had unrepentantly thick, dark hair back then - is tossed and pleated by wind. I've always imagined that she is posing for this atop a hill in Farmington or maybe somewhere further north. Taking just enough time out of whatever spine-wrecking work she was doing - potatoes? hay? - to pose for Pappy, her husband. Our now-deceased grandfather.

It looks like a high hill, for there is nothing in the far background but a white-hot, merciless summer sky. That's what I imagine anyway. I picture one of those awful, searing summer days that beat down. And she's wearing a dress to her shins. At least her arms are bare.

And there is Avis, posing for Pappy, and not wanting to because there's work to be done or somewhere to be.

They had a deep, loving relationship that was also acerbic and cynical. Typical of the Depression-era marriages, I would think. My imagination has always projected them in a scratchy, Grapes of Wrath kind of way, a black-and-white film with lots of decrepid buildings, bread lines, and squalor. Babies with dirty faces and chickens running around the front yard.

But also there was deep, abiding love, too, the seemingly mythical kind that comes with having nothing but each other. The kind you only see in movies.

An overly-romantic view, perhaps, but real nonetheless. Because Avis loved - and still loves to this day - Pappy abidingly. That is to say, there was no posing when it came to matters of real affection, even if it meant posing for Pappy on a hill in the middle of July.

You have heard it before somewhere, I'm sure. That poverty made families tighter and closer. That hard times meant you went without just about everything except kinship and deep, fathomless affinity for your loved-ones. This is what Nana knew. She lived it, and because she lived it (with so many others during that time) we all benefited from it later on.

We used to all get together, my family. My brothers and their wives and children; my sister and her family; and beyond them, my aunts and uncles with their broods. And Avis and Howard would be there too, at the table. Not just for the Big Three: Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter. But for Sundays after church, and birthday parties, too.

They were boisterous, hectic, energy-sapping gatherings, to be sure. The kind that laid you out at the end of the day. The ones in which the adults were gathered in the kitchen, shootin the shit, as we say, while us kids stormed the wooded grounds outside playing whatever.

All of it has been pulled back, though. Like a familial tide: relatives are faded, out to sea somewhere, and I stand on the beach looking out for them. I know they're there. I can see them bobbing on the horizon. Keeping busy to stay afloat.

Pappy is gone. So is an aunt and an uncle. My own siblings are either scattered geographically, or emotionally. We don't even get together for our children's birthdays anymore.

I pulled the picture of Nana for a reason. I do every so often. To just take a look at the woman when she was upright and resilient, not slung into a wheelchair at a nursing home, drooling through her supper.

I'm nothing if not hopelessly romantic, tending toward maudlinness when it comes to assessing my own history. So I used to think I liked looking at it because it was taken so long ago. But I figured out the truth.

Avis is where I began. And where we all began. Avis and Howard, Ina and Ralph, my father's parents. They were the May Poles around which we, their offspring, have danced for so long, holding onto their streamers and not letting go.

Lately, with current happenings, I have (perhaps overdramatically) begun to realize that May has come and gone for us.

I want hope that this is not true. I want it in whatever form it comes.

I want her to pose for Pappy again. Somehow.



  1. So that's why Mark's grandparents seemed to hate each other so much! They actually went a year writing only bitchy notes to each other, which they left in the freezer. Too funny. I enjoyed this post and look forward to spending more time here this weekend...

  2. And BTW, that maypole metaphor is stellar. When we lost our matriarch and patriarch within the span of 6 weeks, our streamers were torn from the pole without warning, sending us reeling. Thankfully, we have healed, but the family will never be the same, of course.