Long before I knew the details, I understood that my parents’ lives were formed differently. Indeed, the worn, brown photographs from my competing European bloodlines testify to this divergence of history. On my mother’s side of the Culley family, I have many photos of smiling great aunts and children enjoying a day at the beach before the war. The women, legs tucked beneath them like rabbits, sit on wool blankets. The children, naked except for their bonnets and diapers, clumsily shovel teaspoons of sand into marmalade jars or coffee tins.
I move the pictures around like pieces to a puzzle, putting them in order by person, by location, by pastime. All the pictures of my mother with her family at the beach in one pile, all my grandmother’s photographs holding my mother in another. I play games with these images and concoct stories about the women in the photographs for entertainment, not from necessity. This side of my family moves through everyday life, photographed next to the things they valued – a prized rose, houses, and farms. I imagine days spent by the sea and afternoons rowing on the river and smile at their proud poses in military uniforms and nurses’ capes.
Yet, like five o’clock shadows, fathers, grandfathers, and uncles do not figure prominently in my life on this side of my family either. The absence of photographs is my proof for this hypothesis. I can only fill a small corner of my dining room table with the few photographs I have of the Culley men. Unguarded moments like the one of my mother’s Irish grandfather and great uncle sitting by the seaside in three-piece suits while reclining in canvass chairs are rare images. These men belong to history, not memory.
Even my mother had difficulty recalling much about these men who are largely silent and have always been silent to me. Conversely, photographs of the next generation of Culley men – like my mother’s first cousins, Ted, Alan, and Fred, dressed in military uniforms and ready to die for God and country – were men I sat across from during Sunday dinners, the table long and plentiful of both food and history.
Culley women have always been a different story. Dozens of their photographs demand center stage. Year after year of class pictures record my great Aunt Stella gazing intently at the camera beside her eager-faced and freshly scrubbed pupils.
Before she married my Scottish grandfather and relinquished the Culley name, my grandmother stands on the Loma ship deck with her right hand behind her head and her left knee half-bent, posing like a film star against the railing in a photo taken in 1931. In another, my grandmother sits with six other nurses, not on a bench outside the West Suffolk hospital but in a boat. All are dressed from head to toe in World War I uniforms, their crisp caps starched into stone, and their pinafores pressed sharply by the iron blocks heated on wood-burning stoves.
I cannot reenact stories told or untold with my father’s family photographs that are left. I only have one image each of my grandparents, my great grandfather Jonah (his name I learned from a condolence card my mother received from a man in Chicago after my father’s death), and my father with his sister, Olga, in Ukraine. I have several prints of my father in Rimini’s detention camp and a handful of tiny, square photographs of him as a young man, the context, location, and story unknown.
Among the few photographs I have, some, like the photograph of my Ukrainian grandparents, are so damaged that the images look like part of a ship’s wreckage, half-hidden in the sea’s sandy bottom. White streaks and creases have weakened Their faces, and only parts of their bodies are visible. This damage makes sense to me. After all, my grandfather and grandmother have never been anything more than apparitions. Because of the ruined image, I inventory my grandparents’ parts I can see.
Grandmother Irena. She sits on my grandfather’s right hand on an invisible chair. Patches of her thinning hair look like straw pulled back in a bun. Her close-set eyes sink into her face like an owl’s beneath her bony eyebrows. Her nose, angular and square, overshadows a serious mouth set in a straight line. The half-moon circles under her eyes sag into her cheeks. Her lace collar, an island of beauty, stretches over her cardigan. I see where her sweater ends, and her opaque arms begin, one hand folded over the other in her lap. Her shoes are stout and heavy; her limbs are frail from age, not simply hunger. Her body is diminutive; her face austere.
Michael, my grandfather, really does look like a specter that might wither at the first hint of sunlight. Much of my grandfather’s body is hidden; only the arc of his shoulders, the left triangle of his coat, the collar, the edges of his shirtsleeves peeking out from under his coat, his stocky fingers, and the fold in his pant leg emerges from the ghostly background. I cannot see his feet though I can tell he is a small man in stature but with a stolid chest like a horse’s barrel. His dark suit blends into the trees and the sallow stains of the photograph. His bald head, thin lips, and protruding ears are the clearest parts of him. The edges of his long coat cover his misty fingers above the crease of his trousers. His blanched collar mistakenly suggests he was a priest like his father, Jonah. My grandparents’ necklines, her lace, and his false holiness shed clues to their personalities and are marks of their wholeness.
I do not have any pictures of my father as a child. In black and white, my father has always been a man. He wears adult clothes. A military uniform. A doctor’s coat. A wool sweater and khaki pants. I cannot quite picture my father as a child, his dark, thick hair falling over his huge, blue eyes. I cannot see him learning to walk, clinging to his mother’s skirts like a dancer’s barre. Even as a child, he surely looked like a man dressed in neatly pressed trousers and a crisp white shirt with a pair of suspenders and beautifully polished leather shoes. After the war, in photographs I have, he rarely smiled. A shame, really. He had such a brilliant grin. His blue eyes twinkled like sunlight on water, and when he poured his entire body into laughter, he seemed surprised like a child startled by the sound of his own voice.
War erased my father’s past like a pair of footprints in the snow after a storm, leaving me the scar of his silence. His photographs are like open wounds to me because, unlike my mother’s family, I knew precious few of the survivors.