I stood on the footstool inside my cedar closet, groping on the highest shelf for one of several boxes of photos that I thought might lurk behind the world’s largest collection of empty shoe boxes. Precariously balancing on my good leg, I shoved aside a basket of forgotten knitting projects. The basket tipped over the edge and a cascade of needles assaulted me on its way to the floor. I grabbed a wooden box which I thought might hold pictures and tried to step down from the stool, sending my body backwards into the room, the box falling from my hands as I grabbed for any hold to keep myself from ruining the approaching women’s supper for which I was trying to find an old photo in the first place.
Once I had righted myself, I sat in the wooden rocker and surveyed the splay of pictures. The assemblage made no sense: pictures of my first wedding mixed with photos of a visit to Arkansas eight years later with my son, who is the child of a musician who wooed me after my divorce. Snaps of friends in Kansas City intermingled with my first house in Fayetteville under construction as I tried to make a home in the Boston Mountains. Cecelia Moran in her wheelchair in a housing project in Jasper in 1993; T. J. Ashworth at the 1987 Newton County Forest Fest, with his piercing, malevolent stare right into the camera’s lens.
I gazed helplessly at the pile, wondering if I could find in its midst, a suitable picture for the little craft project that I had planned for my friends’ amusement. Memories of the places and people in the photographs flooded through me: My first marriage; my first home; my first child. I wondered where some of the people might be now. Others, I know where they live but do not have contact with them. Some have died. I studied the photos of Virginia King’s daughter Jasmine, who looked to me for inspiration from within her disabled body; of a handful of children who cavorted on the lawn of the Murray Valley Community Building on Easter Morning, the year that Thomas Creek rose and stranded Chester and me at the Ashworth compound; Alan’s kids, one of whom now lives in New York with her child, her husband, her mother, and her mother-in-law.
I know that I need to rummage through the bunch and find a photo, but I stare at the mess and think instead of broken promises. Promises made to me and vows that I made to others. Years that fell behind me as I struggled forward. Places that I’ve traveled from which I did not expect to return, not to this place, not to this life. The squares of paper show pleasure that I’ve experienced and hope that I entertained.
In one picture, my face is pinched. I am clad in the dress that I wore on March 21st, 1987, in Newton County, Arkansas. I know what I was saying at the moment that the unsuspecting photographer memorialized my image: Somebody tell that man that he is NOT walking me down the aisle. So much bitterness, so much sorrow, amidst what I believed to be the first day of the rest of my life. The man in question, my father, lurked on the rough wooden porch of the church overlooking Murray Valley, in a grey suit with a white rose pinned to its lapel. My aunt and uncle finally took his arm and gently led him into the church, while my brother Stephen held me and said, Oh Mary, Mary, it’s okay, really. Are you sure you want to do this? And I said, Yes, but keep that man away from me. So much anger.
As I lay in bed a few hours ago, thinking about those photos and about writing of them here, the words I intended to share took a very different course from what I find myself compelled to write. I thought about ways in which I’ve disappointed people in my life, and ways that they have disappointed me. I wanted to say, keep your promises, but then I heard my son’s voice telling me: If the message is spoken, it loses its power. And what is my message, anyway? I no longer know.
The pile of photos still sits on my bedroom floor. I drew one from it, and made my little frame, to show my guests how. They found themselves drawn into the project, one by one, two by two. And it turned out to be something which they all enjoyed, whether they did it or merely examined the results of other’s efforts. Some collected the materials to take home, to make frames with their children or grandchildren. One of my guests talked about collecting memories in her frames — memories she did not want to have slip from her, memories of her pets, one of whom has died, one of whom lies dying. She wanted to keep them fast, next to her heart — and the framing of their photos would help her do so.
As for myself, I found myself letting go of something this morning. I’m not sure quite what it is, but when I released it, a flood of joy rushed into my heart in its place.
A box of random memories.
The frame I made. The woman is Paula Fulcher, one of my friends from Arkansas days, who held my hand during twenty-four hours of fruitless labor, two days before Patrick’s scheduled premature delivery. The child is my son, at about age two. I recently learned that Paula is dead. The news shook me more than I anticipated, given that the day of this photo was the last time I saw her — some twenty-one years ago.