The Middle Distance 1.13.12: When I’m Gone

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photo by Sean Cayton

One day when I’m gone, someone — my daughter or one of my sons — will find the laundry baskets in the bedroom closet, overflowing with snapshots of our family.

The photos are stacked in criss-crossing patterns, each short pile representing the roll of film taken and developed ten, fifteen, twenty, thirty years ago — edges curling and growing crisp. The photos, rarely moved, spoon in darkness, their slick fronts sticking to the matte backs of the photos above.

A few samples drawn from the pile hang on our refrigerator beneath magnets, including the first group portrait I ever took of the four children.

We are at my mother’s house. I take the twin babies, barely two months old, and lay them out on one of my mother’s hand sewn quilts, crown to crown, the tops of their heads touching, their bodies forming a straight line, their soft cotton gowns pulled down over their toes. Their older sister, ten years old at the time, spreads her golden curls and lays face up to their right, smiling like a movie star. To the left of the babies, also facing upward, is their two-year-old brother, dark and handsome. It is hardest for him to remain still as I stand in a chair and hover above them, leaning over to get a direct angle on the star of faces above the star-patterned quilt.

I take probably ten shots and miraculously, in one, everyone’s eyes are open, everyone is facing directly upward, no one is crying, no fingers are raised to noses, no fists stuffed in mouths.

It is a wonderful photo, but like most family photographs, it says nothing about our lives at that time. It is crafted and composed, carefully presenting clean faces to the world, proof of little more than the physical existence of these four children at that time, in that place. It says nothing about the colds and stuffy noses, the crowded house, the adolescence in bloom, the furnace that sometimes doesn’t work, the mountains of laundry, the bedtime stories, the busy father, the exhausted mother.

Going through papers at my mother’s house during the first week of the new year, I come across an envelope of pictures dated November, 1973. Four women stand in the foreground, dressed in somber polyesters, one of them sporting the only hint of color, a bright red handbag. They all have thick, plentiful hair, cut short, teased and styled for the occasion. They look happy to be together.

Behind them, five men in suits and ties. Their heads of slicked back hair are flecked with varying degrees of gray.

Everyone looks close in age, and in fact, their ages span less than 20 years. They are my mother and her sisters and brothers, gathered for their father’s funeral. My mother, the thinnest and most fashionable among them, is the one with the red purse.

Someone not one of them has carefully documented their presence in Clarksville, Tenn. on this winter’s day, the last time they will all be together. The faces carry few clues of the cancer, the brain tumor, the dementia that will take all but two of them in the ensuing 30 years.

I found this picture while searching for another one my mother has misplaced — a wedding portrait of her deceased brother and his long deceased wife, my aunt and uncle. My mother is frantic to find it, one black and white photo among thousands in her house about which she is normally dispassionate. But this one’s loss has touched her somewhere deep, in the place where she holds the loss of her brother, the one she loved more than all the rest, unhappy when he died and she, so far away, unable to hold his hand and tell him goodbye.

Inside another envelope I find a black and white group portrait with ruffled edges — my family’s 1959 Christmas card. I am five years old, sitting choo-choo train style sandwiched between my older and younger sisters, our brother’s crewcut head rising high above ours from behind.

This photo tells me the story of thousands of hours of play, of war cries and baby doll coos, of rough grass beneath bare feet and baseball games in red clay dirt. When my children find it years from now, tucked away in the laundry basket, it will tell them that we were there in a generic living room in 1959.

It will mark time and nothing more. Their imaginations will have to do the rest.

Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.


6 Responses to The Middle Distance, 1/13/12: When I’m Gone

  1. John says:

    Thank you!

  2. Libby says:

    Always value your wisdom, compassion,& writings, Kathryn! Continued good works,and never plan to “go gently”! Many thanks, Libby

  3. Your voice is what I need to hear at this stage of my life…. Memories seem to be all that is real now.

  4. Brenda says:

    wonderfully rich with connections to memories…

  5. Libby says:

    Apologies to poet & for not proofing my own comment: “Do not go gentle”–just another reminder that you and your works are needed & appreciated. Libby

  6. hannahfriend says:

    What a wonderful gift are your stories for your children. Why not fish out a dozen of your favorite photos, and pair them with stories like this one in an album. I’m sure they would treasure such a book, and it would be meaningful to the next generations because your writing is so vivid and lyrical.


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