There are few names and no dates on the photos. Together, they span fifty years. The oldest are bound in a half-torn album tied with a limp shoelace.
The pictures begin with my lithe and lovely grandmother, no more than a teenager, posed alluringly against a tree trunk in a grassless yard. In another, she has arranged herself on top of railroad tracks. Here she is, a poor girl wearing new clothes, and her hair is marcelled. There are pictures of other young women, her friends or sisters; they take turns wearing a fur-trimmed coat. This is their dress-up; these are their aspirations. They have taken pictures to show how desperately they want to get out from the pictures. Cross the tracks. Leave home.
Oh, how you know the feeling.
Many pictures have been ripped from the pages. Glued to the front, as if a new title, the first page remade when the album filled, is a photo labeled “Jim Jimmie Erma,” a family portrait. My father, little Jimmie, looks about four years old. His father holds the boy close in his thick arms, taking responsibility. My grandmother stands alongside wearing the coat and traveling hat. They are squinting into the daylight.
From this vantage point, I can see the secrets and scars in their unblemished faces. They confess to me of future crimes and punishments. Even as an innocent, my father looks exactly as I feared him, a fact that strikes me as peculiar only when I consider that my daughter will see her own hysterical mother in my cherub-cheeked baby pictures. The mother she will misjudge and misunderstand, the mother she might reject and revile, until one day she doesn’t.
But I am going to erase all that—everything I think I see—and give them a fresh start. I’m going to give them what I would if they were my own children, or if they were me. Because they are me. I’m going to give them love.
What if you could erase every shadow you think you see, every mar, every flaw? There would be no lasting injury or disfigurement. No enemy, no victimhood. No lash, no shame, no hiding place. No permanent pain because there would be no place to contain it. Would your story end up the same? Would there even be a story?
The father cups the son’s hand in his. The mother places her hand over both. She looks older in this photo, poised in this new place, made mature as a companion to the others. They are so young and fine, daring and destitute. They have no business doing what they are about to do. They have no idea what they are putting in motion. They are putting all of this in motion.
My grandfather’s mouth is formed as if speaking – interrupting the frozen pose to say the words only I can hear: “Let’s get going.”
Yes, I’m ready, let’s.
This is where the truth begins. It begins when you leave behind everything you know. On a brisk and clear day, somewhere on an unmarked road: people without a past, headed toward the sun, showing us the way to let go.