Thursday, 23 February 2012

Looking through old photos

 “That there is your granddad again, with David, Frieda and your great grandparents.” Nan hands another photo over to me from the mound on the chair, a small monochrome square with a crease running along one side. Children – David and Frieda – sit on a fuzzy grey lawn in bathing suits, toothy grins coyly poking out beneath eyes turned down from the sun. My great grandparents are behind them, caught midway between smiling and hunching toward the picnic basket to grab something still to be eaten. Over the past ten minutes, I have become steadily more acquainted with their faces, watching them age and rejuvenate with everyone else; my great gran bathing an infant David in a metal tub outside, then framing herself twenty-so years younger for a studio portrait, hair dressed in the contemporary fashion. Now she is kneeling, face ruddier, whilst my granddad beams like a loon between her and his father, the centrepiece of the photo. He is five decades younger than my earliest memories of him, his handsome face still bearing traces of a boyhood I saw a minute earlier, free of the spectacles and lines he wore in my presence. Hair neatly parted, with a careless flick in the fringe, shirt collars splayed out casually. He looks like a movie star lounging at the club one summer’s afternoon.

 I set granddad, David, Frieda and their parents down as nan passes another photo toward me. The man staring back at me is dressed in a double breasted overcoat, the shadow of his brow sitting between a set, bullish jaw and a cap to match the jacket.  

“That’s your granddad’s granddad. So your...great, great grandfather!”

He looks respectable, his face gentler the longer I spend with it, but he remains aloof. There is no one I know present in the photo to anchor the two of us in the same way that David and granddad anchor my great-grandparents, connecting us and making them reachable. I catch myself regarding him as my mother’s great-grandfather, as if she might successfully substitute in the bond I’m trying to capture, but suddenly I’m being passed another photo.

“...and then this is your grandad’s grandmother. He did say she was a great woman, but I don’t know – she looks like Nelson here.”

She does. With her grandchildren decked on either side of her, she leans against a bench, large and swarthy-armed, a bizarre scarf and hat crowning her head that quickly forms itself into the Admiral’s cap. I try again to acknowledge the line between us, but my granddad’s appraisal of her points to a separate life of which I am not a part and can lay no real claim to. I believe him when he says that she was good.

We’ve made our through most of the photos and are about to put them back in their box when nan picks up one more. The film has faded to a dull yellow, the mother and her children bleached out to the point where only the open grins of her boys can really be picked out amongst the shapes. I wait for my nan’s commentary, holding the photo while she studies it. Finally, she turns to me and says, somewhat dismissively,

“I don’t know who they are.” We put the photos back.