Four Photographs

Thomas McConnell

The art of our most ancient ancestors, our first human art, seems to have been directed toward the future, not the past: their totems and hunt scenes probably propitiate invisible presiding forces towards a magical fertility, that the next harvest of flesh be bountiful. Bison, mammoth, horse, hunter: they included the stick-figure human but only facelessly. All the world’s famous caves offer not a single portrait on their dark and sooted walls and so because they lived without portraiture our forebears trusted their pasts to their minds, to their stories when they ultimately came to stories.

Imagine then how faces faded, died to the world when they died from memory. Think of that last survivor trying to build again from a realm long past all light, the features of a lost family—chins, noses, brows and smiles in the flickering cavern fire. Voices and veined hands, mother’s dark eye and the play of siblings a shadow on the wall and then no longer even a shadow.

The first of the world’s portraiture, so art historians tell us, arrived with a group of sculpted heads in Jericho dating from 7000 BCE. They’re actually human skulls with faces reconstructed in molded plaster, tinted for the effect of pigment, and cowrie or bivalve seashells—many days walk from Jericho—inset to charge the dead sockets with eyes. The individuals have distinct features, suggesting that they’re meant to catch the unique faces of living people, or rather people who once lived, whose spirits were apparently thought to operate inside those skulls. These Neolithic heads were displayed above ground while the bodies were buried beneath the house floor. Perhaps this preservation captured the genial soul of honored ancestors and was meant to ask their continued blessing. In any case they would occupy the place of family portraits, bearing the torch of household memory from one generation to the next. They precede much more famous Sumerian and Egyptian funerary images by at least three thousand years. They precede our own modern aide-de-memoir, photography, by nearly nine thousand.

 

 

I have a few ancestral pictures I revisit from time to time, beginning with a group portrait now more than a century old. The five of them range before the house, a frame house long ago cinders and ash, standing then on pillars of flat rock. The windows shine under the cedar shingles marshaled in fine array. The porch is long, gingerbread accents at the posts, the balusters white like the house, nearly as white as the woman’s blouse, the dress of the little girl beside her, the long gown descending from the baby’s round face staring dead at the camera. The journeyman photographer or his shop assistant has tinted the overhanging leaves a candescent green and greened up too the twiggy bushes that frame the family before the house. Even hints of rouge enliven all ten cheeks. They stand in a chronological line, the man of the house and his wife, the infant in her arms, then the oldest child, the little girl in white, finally a little boy, the last on the right, too obscure in dark clothes to see much detail beyond the features of his face beneath a visorless cap. They stand apart, no draped arms, no embraces. Husband and wife touch elbows, or rather fabrics, his tweed brushing the billowed sleeve of her blouse.

I don’t know what this distance tells me. Late Victorian propriety probably. Formal familial life in the American South just after the turn of the last century. No fraction of a smile touches on any of these five faces: the decorum of the age, of the occasion. Stand straight. Look your best now. Betray nothing of your inner life for this stranger behind his contraption or for posterity.

The man and wife are my great-grandparents, the gowned infant Henry, a great uncle I never knew, the little girl my great-aunt Mary.

I am convinced the tyke standing last to my right, John Lee Murphy, my grandfather, now more than a decade dead, was the sweetest man I ever knew.

 

 

In a second photograph he is about ten. He stands beside Mary before another wall but the boards are too wide for the house. I make it to be the barn. The camera peers closer, wide eye yielding more detail, the frame holding little more than the two standing children. Mary, the elder by two and a half years, is now only half a head taller. Already in her face is the stooped woman I will know from family reunions come another sixty years. She leans from center in a prim dress with a high collar, checked sleeves, an apron that almost hides her wrists because she keeps her arms stiff at her sides, the way she will stand on April days in the fellowship hall of the country church waiting for a paper plate, for ham and potato salad and pinto beans. Her eyes glance over my right shoulder, over the shoulder of some photographer who’s very probably been dead for three generations anyway.

My grandfather’s eyes bore into mine across two lifetimes. In his face too I can see emergent the man who would live another eighty years and longer, on into his deathbed at age ninety-two. His hair is short, ragged. He wears knee britches and a double-breasted coat. All four buttons are there, matching, but the cuffs leave off well before his wrist bones. Perhaps it will suit him one more winter before it’s folded away for Henry.

Again they do not smile. In fact I see a fear in his eyes, his face. That Mary leans from center, toward the frame, that her eyes glance warily off, this too makes me read some unease sketched here. Maybe it comes from minding manners: these are country children many miles from town and so unused to modernity and its trappings, like photographers with black boxes and tripods, small farmers in their Sunday best in the open air and a rank stranger telling them what to do before their own barn. This may well have not happened before in my grandfather’s memory for likely he doesn’t recall that other time he stood beside his sister at the end of the family line and a flash went up in their woods and inscribed him on a plate of silver, dark clothes and a beanie cap and his infant brother Henry, who would die in his fifties, frozen forever in his mother’s arm.

 

 

In a third picture the child in this boy is almost gone. He stands alone now, where and when I cannot tell. Some heavy canvas drops behind but this is no studio: there’s dirt under his feet again, the flat rock of some foundation pillar by his left boot (high, laced, toes scuffed). He’s still in knickerbockers but his suit is smart, his collar high and stiff, a broad striped tie that someone has taken the time to cinch and arrange across his shirt front, a clutch of flowers in his left lapel. He stands straight with his right hand on the arm of a bench set on the ground beside him, his hair swept back, at attention as he is under its shine, dark Irish circles under his eyes, his mood as stiff as his suit, shoulders and the free arm uncomfortably set. For my grandfather these are his days of pasture baseball or hunting and I imagine his imagination impatient, willing the suit off, his frame and muscles at vigorous play in the field or creek. To his mates he is Kingfish, a nickname bestowed because of his prowess with any kind of ball, and Kingfish a very few will call him still in the decade he dies.

There’s little for scale here but I suppose he’s at least twelve now, better off if not exactly well to do. There’s war in Europe and prices are up, for cotton farmers too. This may be about the time his father buys the first family automobile and drives the buckboard back from the dealership himself, leaving my grandfather to maneuver the car home across the county line, his first time ever behind the wheel of a horseless carriage.

 

 

And a fourth vision, among the last recorded: my grandfather bent and bald now—three quarters of a century have passed—with the old man’s face that grew from the boy’s. In retrospect that movement seems inevitable now, like history. He could have had no other face than this, given the skull his life began with. He’s slouched on the loveseat beside my grandmother in their living room, touching at the elbows, or at the fabric over the elbows, his green flannel shirt, her bright pink sweater. I kneel behind, my hands folded between them. I think I’m in my late twenties, salt already dashed into the hair above my ears. From the great blade of my grandfather’s nose two wrinkles descend so heavily that they pull down what might want to be a smile at the corners of his lips, but maybe that hint is only my willful reading. These lips shape unmistakably the same contour as those of the serious boy of twelve.

My grandmother does smile, ever so slightly, her lips sly at the corners, about the world. They seem to say: You see this gray head, this pained face? One frail body can hold and know all the world can ever know and give of pain; eventually you will come to feel this and so on this occasion I won’t waste precious time telling more.

I have heard their reminiscences. I understand their lives were hard. It must have been a trial to think of smiling through droughts and empty banks and Pearl Harbor. They married the July before Wall Street went bust in ’29 but in their county the Depression had been galloping round in its maraud for years already.

I recall a conversation between my grandfather and Aunt Mary of which I wish now I could remember every word. It took place over a church folding table, over plates of broken food, over sweet tea, amid the babble from family at other tables, Mary and my grandfather recollecting. At the end he asks her if she would live it all again, given the chance of another life. With all the same pains? She wants to know. She shakes her head, her bald head under a blue toque. No, not and endure all that again. He nods, shakes his head in agreement.

I have heard some of what they try to dismiss from their minds behind closed eyes. Henry, the child in arms, was ever sickly. Blood pressure, other pressures. Jawing in a sawmill one afternoon, not even there on business, a metal splinter shattered an eye. He wore a black patch thereafter, had trouble in his work if he could keep it. A little sister, Annie Mae, born too late for the family portrait, perished of a disease no doctor could name much less cure. Sweet girl, pale and eight, she took sick, was carried off in three days while they hovered over the helpless bed around her.

Mary shook her head, my grandfather too. Never again.

I look back across the pictures, watch how his eyes read the world before him. What does it tell him as it passed? From the stiff paper his pupils stare back as if reading mine. Could they possibly have known then what I recognize now? That there is in my attitude an echo of that primitive belief of the ancients, those from Jericho: that an image is not merely a likeness but a vessel for the soul? Not only an idol to ask for good favor but a source to seek perhaps for human wisdom.

Will I someday have a grandchild who pores over photographs and wonders what manner of person this is staring back at him, the man whose genes laid his staring eyes too close together, set them too deep? I have a son already. I am perhaps halfway there.

 

 

What stories might a grandson hear of me—from me, should I live so long and he be born into this world? That I wandered burying grounds in search of the dates inscribed on the tablets of my ancestors? That I pored over old photographs of family I never touched, searching for clues not just to a buried past but for some statement beyond the obvious:

That we survived a while and died.

That we bore children and took up space, worked, suffered, japed and passed talk.

That the world revolved equally well with or without us and that those left behind grieved, for a while, and perhaps were even moved to wonder: Why? How it could be so, that the earth still moves and yet my love be dead?

My grandfather never made fame. He traded cattle, dug ditches during the Depression for seventy-five cents a day and was glad to have the work, ran a country store that was repeatedly burgled even while he forgave boxes of debt to dusty customers with holes in their overalls. Outside his obituary I’m not certain that he ever appeared in the daily paper. He never raised his voice, never raised a hand against the two children he contributed to the sum of the world, never cheated a partner or lied or liked going to church but his biography will never be written. And so already I know that I will be among the last survivors to remember him, that when I am gone he too will disappear, a body of bone sunk beneath the forgotten floor, a synaptic shadow flickering on a wall in the cave of my brain and then no more. That brain of mine that cannot help but spark and wonder: What might I do to be worthy of a story? What can I—what can any of us—do to earn remembrance? We yearn for it and yet we know that all the portraits in the world are but a temporary stay of execution.

 

 

If a picture were snapped now, here, and passed in a generation or two to that potential child I imagine, what would it reveal? What truth could it impart?

Might it make one shard against our human ruin?

Could it show the ache in the heart it gives me today to acknowledge that all those living faces I knew molder in the foreign dark of native soil and the skin I kissed as the coffin lid was closed give way to the skull beneath the skin.

Could that grandchild spy into my gaze and see enough to say of me, That was he, my father’s father, on one of the days during which he was being honest with death, caught already in the act of mourning his own passing?

Author Portrait

Thomas McConnell’s work has appeared in the Greensboro Review, the Southeast Review, the Connecticut Review, the Cortland Review, Shenandoah, and Story|Houston, among other publications. His awards and prizes include an artist’s grant from the Elizabeth George Foundation, the South Carolina Academy of Authors Fiction Fellowship, the World’s Best Short-Short Story, the Hackney National Literary Award for the Short Story, Porter Fleming Awards for Fiction, Essay, and Drama, the South Carolina Fiction Project, the H.E. Francis Award, and the Hardagree Award for Fiction. His novel about the Czechlands in World War II will be published by Hub City Press in 2018.