This essay originally appeared on 3 Quarks Daily.
When my father died a few years ago he left behind a wife with advanced dementia, a large collection of memorabilia from the Franklin Mint, and every one of his tax returns dating back to 1964. Of course he left other things too, including a house and a car and all that kind of thing, as well as his two daughters, a grandson, and one surviving brother. But it was the stuff that came to haunt me. It took forever to go through his desk and study after he died. I wouldn’t call him a hoarder, exactly, because then I would have to call myself one too. The joke I always make about my own … “archival” impulses goes like this: “As long as everything is stored in neatly labelled, chronologically arranged boxes then it’s not hoarding.” (Except it’s not a joke.) I still own every wall calendar I’ve had as an adult, every date book, every beside-the-phone memo pad. And that’s just the paper items: on my computer is every word I’ve written since 1989, every email I’ve sent or received, every party invitation, every For Sale poster, every financial document, every journal entry. All very organized and therefore definitely not a sign of mental illness.
My dad was exactly the same—or I guess I should say that I am the same as him. On the surface, my parents’ house was neat and tidy, even clinically so, and looked like it had been furnished by a hotel chain’s Interior Decorations Committee. They moved there 17 years before my dad died, which is longer than I lived in the house I grew up in, so it had become a family home of sorts. For years my sister and I assumed that when they left our childhood home our parents had dumped all our stuff. (I was particularly bitter about my full run of blue- and yellow-backed Nancy Drews.) It seemed pretty typical of my parents to jettison everything of ours and not look back: as children we had always been along for the ride, small accidental appendages to their romance, my dad’s career, my mom’s sports, my dad’s ever-shifting hobbies, their cars and pets. As they got older and more lonely—friends died or failed to stay in touch after moves; my parents stayed more and more at home—they became dependent on us to fill the void, growing petulant about the infrequency and shortness of my visits from Canada. The fact that they had shed everything we had grown up with seemed more like a metaphor than a lifestyle choice.
So the giant box of unorganized photos in my parents’ hall closet was always a real puzzlement. There were a few spiral-bound albums with neoprene sleeves for pictures and the word “PHOTOS” in wavy font embossed in gold on the covers, but they were mostly empty except for the first few slots, a testament to good intentions and failed execution. There were also gigantic manila envelopes full of photos that my dad had labelled things like “Kids,” “Dogs,” “Cars,” etc. Not a particularly helpful organizing system, but at least evidence that he had taken some kind of stab at it. And then there was the slurry at the bottom of the box: hundreds of loose curled-edge photos, mostly black and white, populated by ghostly blurry people whom no one remembered. A couple of years before my dad died I went through this box again and became fixated on two pictures in particular, which I nicknamed “Lesbian Softball Team” and “The Great Gatsby.” I have absolutely no idea who the people in the photos were, or what their connection was to my family. The people in them are raucously happy, which seems evidence enough that the connection was probably fairly distant.
A couple of years before my parents died I tried to get them interested in the question of who was in these two pictures, but I never managed to get very far. The only way to get my dad to talk about his past was to sneak up on him with a bottle of wine. That is, you couldn’t query him directly, but instead had to lob vague, open-ended statements into the middle of the dining table and hope he’d bite: “I often wonder what being in a fraternity in the 50s was like” or “I bet it’s hard to milk a cow.” And he had to be tipsy. This latter requirement was more difficult than one might have imagined, because for my entire childhood my dad had only two modes: rigid, upright sobriety and angry, petulant drunkenness. But as he eased into his 70s and 80s, he put away the Scotch and the Absolut and discovered wine. And so it came to pass that for the last 10 years of his life, Scott and I got into the habit of sitting around the table with him after dinner during our visits, finishing off the second bottle and gently prying stories out of him.
The best ones he would repeat over and over again, until they became as precise and polished as a Broadway musical number. The time he won the snare-drum competition for all of New York State and got to make a 78-rpm record of his winning solo. The summer in the early 40s he and his two brothers built a new house for migrant laborers on their farm, with the help of the German POWs who were working there that summer—they had an MP assigned to them as overseer, but he would prop up his rifle against a tree and take a nap while everyone else worked. How he ate dinners in the basement of his fraternity, along with the mostly Mexican staff, because he had to work in the kitchen in order to afford to live in the house. The raucous cocktail parties he and my mom would attend during their courtship in Syracuse, full of office workers in narrow-lapelled suits and pencil skirts; the time they played bridge for 48 hours without stopping under a Christmas tree hung upside down from the ceiling.
The people in “The Great Gatsby” photo seem like they might date from this latter era, or maybe a little before, while the members of the “Lesbian Softball Team” are clearly from the 1920s. So it seems unlikely that they were relatives or even friends of my parents—if the former, they would have been easy to identify, their pictures put into context with other family photos of holidays and life events, and if the latter then wouldn’t my parents also be in them? So how and why did the pictures of these strangers end up in our family photo box? Who is the jolly, portly, boater-wearing young man in “The Great Gatsby,” and what string of events led to his picture being in my possession?
One evening you’re hanging out with your friends by the lake; someone has a cottage for the week and you all decide to get together for a little wing-ding. The night air is soft and warm and you can hear the lapping of the waves against the dock, the drinks are strong and sweet and people get giddy and silly and there is definitely someone you want to flirt with and you all start singing school songs, someone has a camera, you throw your arms around the closest couple of friends and all mug for the photographer, there is a blinding flash which makes you all blink for a few seconds—but before that, in the split-second before the blinking and the annoyance of the bright haloes around nearby objects and the unlinking of arms and the return to drinking and the slight desperation and eventually Margie getting sick in the bushes and everyone stretching out in hammocks and cots on the big wraparound porch to sleep it off in their clothes until bleary dawn, in that split second you are immortalized forever: young, joyous, maybe a bit of a jerk but reliably amusing, quick to mix a cocktail or light someone’s cigarette, and it will always be like this, always, with your friends gathering on weekends and their silly jokes never getting tiresome and their bodies moving strongly and reliably and their memories secure.
The photograph will have its own journey: from the camera to the drugstore to the photographer to a bedstand to an envelope to a box and another box and another box and another box for decades in the dark, while everything around it changes and shifts like a kaleidoscope until the moment that it’s pulled back into the light and nothing around it is the same. And you will gradually lose touch with those friends and some of them will marry one another or other people and move far away or die in wars or car accidents and some of them will have children and they will have children (and one of them will end up with a box of photos from the house of someone who has died) and you will either keep drinking or eventually quit but either way your jokes will stop being funny and you will keep making them anyway and the people around you will roll their eyes and you will shrink and the boater will end up on a closet shelf and then in a basement and then you will die and it will end up in a thrift store and that will be all that is left of you along with a photograph belonging to someone who doesn’t know your name.
If this is your father, I am so sorry. Even if it is not, I am so sorry. Right now I wonder how you are feeling. Have you lost him, or is he still in your life? Did you ever know him? If you did, then you have your own stories with him and from him: things he did and said to you, the memories from his own life he would reminisce about until they became your own stories. They don’t have to be the same as mine; there doesn’t need to be a card game under a Christmas tree. It doesn’t matter. I’m not going to say that “they really are all the same” because they’re not. My dad grew up poor and then he became comfortably middle class and then he died fairly poor again. He had a lot of privileges (his race, his gender, his education, his nationality) but lacked some others (his father was cold and unloving, he struggled with feeling like a hick his entire life, he was painfully shy). Maybe your dad grew up in the dirt, or under a railroad bridge, or maybe he is from Greenwich, Connecticut, and his car bears his initials in semaphore tiles on the driver’s side door. Maybe he is from another place whose class and privilege markers I don’t even know enough about to invoke. Maybe he loved you and maybe he didn’t. And maybe you were never sure. But one thing I bet is the same is the fact of the stories, their existence, and that they mean something to you. I don’t mean this to be simplistic or a cliché, but it is simple I think. Unless something goes terribly awry, you will lose him if you haven’t already. I am not saying this to be cruel. And then the stories will mean even more to you than they do now because they will not change from then on: they will thicken and congeal and set like aspic. They might jiggle a bit, but only because you got something wrong, you introduced some new detail or misremembered something slightly. It will not be his fault, because he is gone. And eventually your idea of him will dilute and grow diffuse until the molecules of your memory merge with your idea of fathers in general. And then maybe his picture will end up in a stranger’s closet, and his face will make her think of her own father, and that will be enough.