|Marlin Landon "Bob" Gaffin circa 1941|
When I think back on the houses that have contained my life, including farmhouses, a log cabin, single-family homes, duplexes, condos, and apartments, located in diverse areas across Southern Ohio, Central Ohio, Queens and Long Island, New York, and the Atlantic Coast of Florida, one of the things all of them had in common was framed photographs of family members hanging on walls and ranging the tops of furniture—copious photographs that were, and are, storyboards of the lives of my ancestors and of me.
My attachment to family photographs began when I was a toddler. The Second World War was raging, and Bob, my mother’s oldest brother, was in the very throat of it, serving as a half-track driver and sharpshooter in Patton’s Army in Europe. Bussy, my mother’s seventeen-year-old brother, had died seven months before I was born. My grandmother’s worries about Bob, and her grief over the loss of Bussy and of her own mother just weeks after Bussy’s passing were a serious threat to her emotional well-being. On the advice of our old country doctor, my parents agreed to let me stay with my grandparents, in the hope that my presence would be the balm my grandmother needed to regain her health.
The following is a scene evocative of the root of my love of family photographs. It is a dialogue between my grandmother and me when I was about two years of age. It is a fictionalized account of much less structured discussions we often shared about the family photographs that are the subject of the piece. I wrote it for GUARDIANS AND OTHER ANGELS (http://goo.gl/imUwKO), my novel that is a blend of fact and fiction, a book populated primarily by my great-grandparents, my grandparents, my parents and the people of their circles, as well as one main fictional character. Mommaw and Poppaw in the passage are my maternal grandparents; Uncle Dickie is their teenage son.
Excerpt of GUARDIANS AND OTHER ANGELS
“…As, like Mommaw and Poppaw, the sun gave up working for the day in our corner of the world, and retired behind the lazy hills reclining all across the broad horizon, it was then that the gloom of death-revisited settled in upon the household once more. Our nightly ritual never varied. Riding Mommaw’s hip, she carried me to the room where I slept. While the bedtime stories of other children were of “Little Red Riding Hood” and “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” mine were of Uncle Bussy and Uncle Bob.
|Bussy Gaffin 11 years old circa 1936|
On the wall, within eyeshot of my bed, was a photograph of Uncle Bussy, a grainy black and white enlargement of his face and upper torso picked out of a family photograph taken when he was about eleven. Riding my grandmother’s hip, always she carried me to the photograph where it hung on the wall. He had been a good-looking, fair-haired, pale-skinned boy, and like my mother, his nose and cheeks were dusted with freckles, his station in life clearly evident in his bib overalls. It was like one of those portraits where the eyes follow you all around the room, and although some children might have been frightened by it, it called to me, instead.
“Mommy says dat Uncle Bussy called me ‘Tadpole’ ‘cause I was in Mommy’s tummy when he knew me,” I reminded my grandmother, my pudgy index finger tracing the cheek of the young boy in the photograph. The man he would never become was unmistakable in the outline of the jaw, although not quite angular, was on the verge of being, like a flower halfway between budding and full bloom.
“My land, yes, Honey. He tried so hard ta hold on so he could see you. Poor Little Bussy,” my grandmother replied, her voice breaking, her great intake of breath tamping down the nagging voice of her great loss.
“I wish Uncle Bussy could know me, Mommaw. He wooks so sad in da pichure. I could pway wiff him and make him feel bettuh.”
“He was just so sick, Honey.”
“Is Uncle Bussy in Heaven, Mommaw, wike Mommy says?”
“He surely is, Honey.”
“Can people come back home fwom Heaven, evew, Mommaw?”
“He surely would want to, if he could, ‘specially ta see you.”
“And, dis is Uncle Bobby,” I pointed to a photograph on another wall in my bedroom, a photograph of a young man in a military uniform, sporting a handsomeness so blond and well put together as to be the envy of any movie idol. Mommaw carried me over to the photograph, my brow wrinkling seriously. “Uncle Bobby is fighting dat bad man in…I can’t ‘member dat pwace, Mommaw.”
“Uncle Bobby is fightin’ a bad man named Hitler in a place called Germany. Hitler is the leader o’ them German people, an’ we ‘er fightin’ them ‘cause they do bad things,” Mommaw explained patiently, speaking to me as if I were an adult, as she always did.
“Uncle Dickie spanked Wex dis morning. Wex got in da henhouse. He ate some eggs after dat fox weave.”
“I know, Honey. Uncle Dickie had ta learn the dog that it’s bad ta eat them eggs. That’s kind o’ like what Uncle Bobby is doin’ over there in Germany, but not exactly.”
“Is Gewmany weawy, weawy fawr away, Mommaw, wike Heaven?”
“Germany is away over on the other side of the world, but not as far as Heaven.”
“Why did Uncle Bussy go to Heaven, Mommaw?”
“Because he sneaked out ta play when he was down with the measles.”
“You wet me go out to pway, and I don’t go to Heaven.”
“Uncle Bussy got real sick outside. When people git real sick sometimes they go ta Heaven.”
“You made bad wike Wex, Mommaw. You forgot to tell Uncle Bussy no when he went outside, wight?”
“No, not exactly, but I shoulda stayed right there in the room with him.”
“Did Uncle Dickie spank you for being bad wike he did Wex?”
“God spanked me, Honey.”
“Did it weawy weawy hurt when God spanked you, Mommaw?”
“Yes, Honey. It really really hurt, an’ it still hurts mighty powerful.”
“But when I go out to pway, I won’t get sick ‘cause Uncle Dickie says I’m weawy weawy stwong. Uncle Dickie says dat Uncle Bobby is vewy big and stwong. And he wuns weal fast wike Old Smoky.”
“He runs pert near as fast as that old horse.”
“He can wun home to us, den, if dat bad man twies to hurt him.”
“The Good Lord awillin’, he will, Honey.”
The nightly “visit” to the photographs of Uncle Bussy and Uncle Bob completed, Mommaw carried me to the living room, where the old rocking chair sat in wait. And Mommaw’s rocking and crying commenced anew. After I had fallen to sleep, she carried me to my bed in the downstairs room nearest to the bedroom she shared with Poppaw….”
Award-winning author and artist, blogger, and interior designer Linda Lee Greene is on social media at the following:
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