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A Photograph of My Father

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Like Raymond Carver I also have a photograph of my father. I found it last night whilst sorting through boxes looking for Christmas ornaments. It's a photo I had put away intentionally, buried deep under old work files and papers I had written in college. A photo that I had no desire to see again.

This picture was not given by him. My aunt had given it to me when I turned seventeen. "You look so much like your father," she had said, and I remember feeling the creep of discomfort, looking away. I didn't know how to respond. As I recall I mumbled something about my uncle telling me that before. She went on as I sat in awkward silence, her tone collusive; the family was just outside on the patio and this was forbidden conversation.

She spoke of how cool he was, driving around town on his motorcycle. He was in a band, a local bad boy who drove the girls crazy with his flirting. Lilith_John_Collier She spoke as if we were both schoolgirls and she was confessing to me her secret crush.

I don't recall all the things she said that day, but I do recall the comparison of our mannerisms, our shared habits, the similarity of our laughs. He was, and is still, my uncle's best friend. She said they visited him in Florida every summer. I took this information in, but not with curiosity; rather, with a growing feeling of desperation. This was a conversation I had never wanted to have. I wanted to clamp my hands over my ears and block out the words as she drew closer, watching for some reaction, some dramatic change in my countenance to prove that her memories were affecting me as they were affecting her.

"Do you remember what your father looked like?"

Those words finally struck me. I realized that this was where we had been heading all along. This was the thing that had been sitting in my throat, a hardened mass that made it difficult to breathe. I recall saying something non-committal like "Yes. He looked like me," but my ambiguous response did nothing to deter her conviction.

"Come on. I want to show you something."

Her next words to me need not have been spoken. They came hurtling from her mouth through a vacuum in time. They had been spoken already, at that moment when she had first said "You look so much like your father." They had been hovering in the air around us, waiting.

"I have pictures of him."

I let her take my hand and lead me. I sat obediently as she pulled them from closets and drawers – high school yearbooks and photo albums. She sat next to me and began her narration, telling me the story of a man I never knew. Her fingers stroked the image of his face as she re-lived each of these moments forever frozen in time.

I remember feeling like the main character in Du Maurier's Rebecca, trapped in a bedroom by a grief-maddened Mrs. Danvers, forced to look at a dead woman's underwear. As she flipped through the photos I closed my mind's eye. Seeing, but not seeing. Not allowing the words or the images to penetrate me, not allowing them to leave their mark in some vulnerable place within.

Then she began to pull back the little foil triangles holding certain photos in place, the ones she intended for me to keep. My father's graduation picture. I stared at the simulacrum of my own face as she handed it to me. Our faces were a near perfect likeness, except that this man did not exist, at least not in my world. I felt no emotional connection to the face looking back at me.

A black and white picture of my mother and father, the type taken in a booth at a carnival or fair. I noted how young my mother looked. Then a photo of him playing with his band in Florida. This is what he looks like today.

The next and last photograph she handed me is the photo that I found last night as I hunted down errant Christmas decorations.

In this picture my father is walking in front of a black car on a sandy road in Florida. His shirt is completely unbuttoned and the wind is blowing it from his body. His head is down, but you can just make out his face. He has a look on his face that's hard to express. It's the look of a man in pain, the kind of deep mental torment that would make him have to stop on a deserted road and get out of his car to walk around. The kind that has enveloped his mind so thoroughly that he is completely unaware of someone taking his picture.

This is the photo that finally broke through to me on that day. This man I knew. This expression. The depth of it. Grief. Pain. This is the man who held onto me on the last day that I would ever see him. He had signed the divorce papers and then broken down as I was being led away. He grabbed me, sobbing. I didn't want him to let me go. I couldn't have been more than four years old, yet the feeling of guilt was heavy upon me.

My aunt had said to me that I should have this picture. It was taken right after the funeral for my sister. I remember staring at the man in the photo, trying to gain some understanding of him. She misunderstood my concentration. Her voice was emotional as she said to me that he was devastated, it just destroyed him. He had loved my sister so much.

I tried to reconcile the words that she was saying with the face in the photograph and the truth that had made me shut down all feeling and thought of him. He had loved me, I do know that, but he was a violent man and when he was drinking he was abusive. He was abusive to my mother in ways that defy comprehension. When a rage was upon him it was not enough to harm her, his need was to completely control her by threatening harm to those she loved and, far more torturous, to anyone who loved her. His threats forced her to isolate herself from those who cared for her, from anyone who would have helped her. He assigned her the responsibility to keep them safe and the blame if harm came to them.

I could say that because she was young and naive she believed his threats, but that again would deny the truth that I knew, that I myself had witnessed. The possibility of such violence already had a corporeal existence in our lives, there was no question of whether he was capable, too many bore the scars of his capabilities. His threats were not phantoms invoked to prey upon her fears. They were very real and considered plans whose execution needed only a whim on his part to be set into motion.

I think perhaps it was the death of my infant sister that caused the ripple of change that allowed my mother to escape, that point when the loss became so great that it overwhelmed fear. My sister went to sleep one night and never woke up. Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. I was too young to remember much from that time, but I do recall that it was the time of my mother's pulling away, her refusal to continue life as she had been living it.

When I received that picture from my aunt I wanted to throw it away, but I couldn't bring myself to do that. It was too deeply connected to my sister's death, to the agony my mother had gone through. To simply cast it away was like denying this truth that must live inside me. I own this truth, as I think all of our truths should be owned, even if never shared with another person. As long as I exist, this truth exists. There is no one who can make me unknow it. No words can make me re-write it. The look in my eyes says that I hold this truth inside me; it has brought attempts at florid alteration to a halt, mid-breath. It will not be softened nor swayed.

I took the photo and hid it away. It had no place in my world and yet it had a significant place in my world, a Liar's Paradox as profound as any textbook statement. As I moved around through life the photo would pop up and I would find a new place to hide it.

When I found it this time, life and age had changed my perspective. What once had been a photo of a man was to me now a photo of a kid. He does not look bold nor particularly strong. He looks small to me, so much smaller than the man I remember. And young, far too young to bear the demons that are dancing across his face. But I know his agony is well-deserved and therefore right. I stared at the face in the photo and understood for the first time. I understood that look of grief, the deep inner torment that could make a man have to pull over and get out of his car on a deserted beach road. I understood how he might not even be aware of someone snapping his picture.

The first poem I ever loved was "A Photograph of my Father in His Twenty-Second Year" by Raymond Carver. After years of being force-fed poetry I came across this poem in college. I could barely contain myself as I ran back to my room and locked the door. I sat on the floor and hiccup/sobbed for the better part of an hour. In four verses he had brought me to my knees. His words might have been my words, his photograph my photograph. But it was not for the man in my photograph that I wept, it was for the sudden, unexpected depth of connection I felt with the stranger who had written about his own photograph.

When I look at the photo now I do not feel forgiveness, I do not feel pity or anger. I have no need of closure. He no longer exists, the boy in this picture. And whatever he may have become, he will never know me. I will never know him.

I have attached no particular emotion to this photograph; rather, what comes to my mind are words. The words of writers far more eloquent than myself.

Raymond Carver
"Photograph of My Father in His Twenty-Second Year"
All his life my father wanted to be bold
But the eyes give him away

Edna St. Vincent Millay
"I will put Chaos into fourteen lines"
I have him. He is nothing more nor less
Than something simple not yet understood;
I shall not even force him to confess;
Or answer. I will only make him good.

Anne Sexton
"The Truth the Dead Know"
And what of the dead? They lie without shoes
in the stone boats. They are more like stone
than the sea would be if it stopped. They refuse
to be blessed, throat, eye and knucklebone.

Margaret Atwood
"Variations on the Word Sleep"
I would like to be the air
that inhabits you for a moment
only. I would like to be that unnoticed
& that necessary.

Whenever I hear people say that they love poetry I cannot help but roll my eyes. Pretentious. Shallow. There are hundreds of poems that have burned themselves into my psyche, each one specific, unique in its connection within my mind. The rest of the lot can be thrown in the wastebasket as far as I'm concerned. I do not love poetry. I do love poems. Each one that I've embraced has become a part of me, a metaphoric representation of some significant event in my life.

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About A Geek Girl

  • I love poetry.

  • Thanks FC, I pour out my heart and soul to you and that’s what I get? What a tease. I feel like I just spent my whole paycheck wining and dining you and the best I’m gonna get is a handshake goodnight.

    I only love poetry when I can feel it. When someone tells me they don’t like poetry I think to myself that they just haven’t had the right poet yet. For me that first connection was a very intimate moment, now I relate to the words of E M Forester, “Only connect”.
    And Walt Whitman.
    A Noiseless Patient Spider
    “And you O my soul where you stand,
    Surrounded, detatched, in measureless oceans of space,
    Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them.
    Till the bridge you will need be form’d, till the ductile anchor hold,
    Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.”

    It is the connection that fascinates me.

    I feel the same way when someone says they love music. That’s so boring. I want to know what kind, who, why?

    But then–in my profile I say that I love music. I have no explanation for my hypocrisy other than that I am the Pot. And the Kettle. The devil’s advocate according to my grandmother.

  • Amazing…

  • I’ll have to start reading you, Geek Girl. Your pen name threw me off.

  • Very well written. Thanks for sharing yourself. I have friends who haven’t opened up this much.

  • Like you, Geek Girl, I could take most of the poems written by mankind and toss them into the trash. Those few that matter to me are the ones I know well – or know how to find easily. Like you, the few poems that mean something to me are part of me.

    I’ve not been so unlucky as to suffer the kind of pain that was inflicted upon you as a child by the drunken, angry, grief-stricken child who was your father. I was a lot luckier, and I’m grateful to this day for it.

    My own father, a man in his forties when I was born, wanted me to be a father; he wanted me to be a Jewish father, to father sons and to carry on the family name. My father thought like a medieval prince that way – and raised me to think the same way. But most of all, he wanted me to be a good father. I’ve tried to carry out his charge (my writing is part of that charge, recording the family history for our sons), and I hope I’ve succeeded.

    But that is for the future to disclose.

    What I can report is that our sons are good boys, and good sons – two different things entirely. And they give me the honor I never gave my own father – an honor I’m not sure I deserve.

  • Cindy, thanks so much. My mother is amazing to me. After all that she went through she was able to extricate herself and go on to become the VP of promotion for a major record label. She traveled the world.

    Her story is far more interesting than mine, but it is her story to tell. I hope someday she will.

    It was from her that I learned the importance of a strong sense of self. And that all things can be overcome.

  • Roger, the pen name is a self indictment 😉
    I am geeky. A nerdy bookworm right down to my black-framed birth control glasses. I’ve spent five years writing technology newsletters and creating html website templates. My goal is to avoid that type of writing here as much as possible.

    Still, I am more of a reader than a writer. I’ll try not to disappoint you.

  • El Bicho, It’s easier for me to write than to talk, if that makes sense. What I’ve written here and in my Life One Year After Foreclosure article I doubt that I could have expressed in a verbal conversation.

    You said ‘well-written’ and I’d like to take a moment to say thank you to my editor,(segue) whomever that may be. I have many writing peculiarities. Like writing in sentence fragments. And beginning sentences with conjunctions. I do not envy the person who is forced to edit my articles here, I am an editor’s nightmare. My mystery editor has made only the most subtle of changes and allowed me those little idiosyncrasies that make my writing voice uniquely my own. That is much appreciated.

  • Ruvy, The main cause for my discomfort in talking about my father is that I had always had a fear that some part of him lived in me. I did not want to be like him.

    Of course those fears have subsided over the years. Other than superficial similarities such as looks, facial expressions and physical mannerisms, I am nothing like him.

    I was lucky to have a wonderful step-father, who I call dad. He encourages my writing and has taught me what it means to really have a father. When I speak of my dad, he is the one I am refering to.

    I’m sure your sons are right to show you honor. They understand the depth of your love for them, I’ve seen it in the things you’ve written. It’s a wonderful gift that you give to them, the recording of your family history. That’s amazing and admirable.

  • I couldn’t resist!!

    OK, I probably quote Robert Frost and Wordsworth the most often. Many favs including Poe, Whitman, and of course, Dr. Seuss!
    Are you familiar with “The Death of a Ball Turrent Gunner”?
    And my garden is full of daffodils!

  • learn

    I love those poems, and I love you for writing this and writing this so beautifully.

    Miss you,

  • FC, I’m glad you couldn’t resist.
    I always associate The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner with The World According to Garp for some reason. Not sure if it was mentioned in the book, but more than likely because it’s the only thing I had ever read about turret gunners and that’s what Garp’s father had been. That’s a rather dark poem, my curiosity is sparked by how it may affect you. And why.

    Wordsworth and his Daffodils were a little light for my tastes, The World is Too Much would be my preference. Dark, stormy and I have a thing about the sea. I do love Poe however. Enough to have driven from Annapolis to Baltimore every Halloween to pay my respects at his grave when I was a teenager. Hopefully they’ve cleaned up the neighborhood since then.

    Whitman. Of course! I’ve already quoted my favorite.

    I sometimes fall into lumbering, lugubrious litanies of alliteration. I have Seuss to thank for that. And Frost for refining it.

    I wish people would make poetry lists like they make music playlists. If I were to create a poetry collection it would be made up of poems rather than poets.
    When I wrote this post about feeling disconnected from words, these poems immediately came to mind. That’s how I relate to it.

    If I were to make a playlist for you it would begin thus:
    A Dirge Without Music ~ Edna St. Vincent Millay.
    Because I have lost loved ones in tragic circumstances, that would be the poem that affects me the most.
    Negro ~ Langston Hughes.
    The first poem that I ever connected to completely as a woman.
    You Ask Why Sometimes I Say Stop ~ Marge Piercy.
    This would be one of few from her. I start to really get into her poems and then she whips out a piece of fruit or a vegetable and completely destroys the moment for me.
    Listening ~ Amy Lowell
    I Do Not Love You Except Because I Love You ~ Pablo Neruda
    Remember, Body ~ Constantine Cavafy
    You fit into me ~ Margaret Atwood
    I Hate and I love ~ Gaius Valerius Catullus
    Her Kind ~ Anne Sexton
    Funeral Blues ~ W.H. Auden

    That would be a start.
    But I would have to include some literature as well.
    A Rose For Emily ~ William Faulkner
    The Yellow Wall-Paper ~ Charlotte Perkins Gilman
    The Rocking Horse Winner ~ D.H. Lawrence
    A Good Man is Hard to Find ~ Flannery o’Connor

    Of course, there are more that I would share, but I’m more interested in the list you would create and finding new inspiration.

  • learn, it’s so good to see you here! I’m glad you liked my choices, I’d love to hear some of yours.

    I’ve missed you too sweetheart.
    We must catch up.

  • I love poetry. In fact, Mary Oliver and Stanley Kunitz loved poetry too. And by the way, so do the thousands of attendees of the Dodge Poetry Festival held biannually. I think your roll of the eyes is mistaken. It’s you who is being pretentious and judgmental of them for not meeting your exacting standards –which of course mean only something to you, and should continue to mean nothing to them.

  • Here’s my reply to your inquiry regarding my interest in “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner”.


  • War and Poetry

    It was extremely moving. And one of the reasons I cannot say that I love poetry. The poetry that I connect to is mostly dark with dark connections. Love would be entirley the wrong word for my feelings.

    Thank you so much for sharing your story with me. A much appreciated connection that will stay with me always.