A photograph offers evidence of what is remembered, but it also intimates what might have been.
—Ronit Matalon, “The One Facing Us”
A black-and-white snapshot contains my first memory of a place that no longer belongs to me, a place gone from my life forever, in this picture stand four generations of a family: a young woman, her father, his mother and two great-grandchildren. I am the little boy in the white pullover with collars poking out at incongruous angles. The sweater looks far too bulky and collegiate; it turns me into a little man and helps predict how the 4-year-old will appear at 30 or 40: perplexed, serious, perhaps a loner but not unkind. My hair runs crooked and high across my forehead, which has been bathed in sun; even in the photograph, the tan is apparent. How big my ears appear, radar ears, like a grown man’s. And looking at them now, they are unmistakably my ears.
Next to the little man stands my sister, her bangs sliced in a straight line right above her eyebrows. Her cheeks have a plumpness I do not recognize in the sister of my adulthood; today her skinniness worries me. My sister now spends too many hours working in a laboratory, raises two children, each from different marriages, and speaks listlessly during our long-distance conversations. Although older by 14 months, I feel younger by years. In the photograph I recognize the smile of a girl who would soon adore animals and board games. She is wearing a coat buttoned to her neck, but the day cannot be cold. It is June and the sun filters through a hazy backdrop of aging pine and birch. I have no idea why she is bundled, but she is, tightly.
This is a goodbye photograph, perhaps one of many from that day, but I have seen only this one, with this constellation of relatives.
My mother is standing behind me, her hands clasped at her belly. I know the day cannot be cold because she wears a light-colored, sleeveless blouse, like the blouses she wore throughout my childhood, thin cotton pieces with decorative stitching on the collars. Therein lies the mystery of black-and-white pictures. That blouse could be yellow, pink, white, pale blue, peach. The exact color might reveal something about my mother’s spirits that morning, some hint of her outlook as she prepares to leave the small town where she grew up. She is 23. A dark skirt reaches to her knees, and below bare calves, she wears white socks, thin I imagine, folded at the top. I cannot make out the details of her shoes. Whoever snapped this picture, and still I do not know the identity of that person, has cut off part of my feet and my sister’s feet and most of my mother’s shoes.
Then, as now, my mother is a heavy woman, but I did not think of her as fat. I thought of her body as a protective softness, as uniquely hers: my mother’s body, warm and yielding and sometimes, when she trimmed dogwoods in the sun or pushed a mower across the lawn, perspiring and musky. From the photograph it is difficult to see that my hair will eventually be the color of hers, the color of sequoia bark, with gold streaks in summer.
I cannot know what is true in this photograph. I want to say that my mother’s slight smile reflects happiness and confidence, but smiles in pictures are deceiving. The little boy is smiling, too, but he is the only one not looking directly at the camera. He seems poised to run from the family grouping, eager to break away from the generations.
My mother looks as if she loves the children, the bundled girl and the little man.
On the left, behind my sister, stands my grandfather. Now this is odd: He is wearing a Hawaiian-print shirt tucked into black trousers. Years later he would travel to California and spend hundreds of dollars on shirts like this one, along with bright red slacks, white shoes with elaborate buckles and fringes, expensive knit sweaters. But now, in his quiet mining town of northern Michigan, the stores on Main Street do not carry clothes from California or Hawaii or even Chicago, and yet my grandfather craves a semblance of fashion and hard-to-find colors. One thing he will not hide in his lifetime is a preference for loud prints and flashy ties. Where did he get this Hawaiian, or pseudo-Hawaiian, specimen with frothy waves? Or are they mountains? Under it he wears a white T-shirt, visible at the unbuttoned collar. My grandfather has glasses, a high forehead with receding hair, and a prominent nose, which in its thickness is a striking visual echo in the photograph. That nose obviously comes from the woman standing between him and my mother.
She is my great-grandmother, a woman with masculine features, the large, strong nose, barely graying hair pulled back, a hardened face from the Old World of Yugoslavia, a face I now associate with war and grief. In recent years I have seen her on television, in the faces of Bosnian women mourning their husbands, brothers and sons, families decimated by hatred. She is 67, large-bellied, proud of the nourishment that has expanded her waist. As a girl she knew constant hunger; this weighty girth is enviable proof of survival, of conquest over desperation. A white belt circles her midsection, as if protecting what is rightly hers. Years after the photograph is taken, I will hear how she was known to eat the glistening strips of pork fat left behind on other people’s plates. As a child she scrubbed miners’ clothing in exchange for room and board. With her formal schooling halted at second grade, she spent her youth sweeping floors and peeling potatoes. She had no choice because she had no family except two younger sisters who struggled alongside her. Their mother, in the old country, desperately wanted them to have a better life, so one day she lifted her daughters onto a horse-drawn cart that carried the children away, never to see mother or father or homeland again. This is all I know of my great-great grandmother—that she was a poor village woman who ran crying after her children as they left one life for another.
I do not know what is true in the photograph.
My grandfather’s left arm stretches around my great-grandmother’s back, his hand resting on her shoulder. They are son and mother, that much is clear. People always said, as if it needed to be said, that they looked alike. Noses, foreheads, eyebrows, lips—all passed down from mother to son. Temperaments, too: both are as stubborn as the old growth in the woods, living against time and winter. Large noses and pig-headed stubbornness. I’d heard those very words as a child, on visits back to this place, and even then I understood what they meant.
My grandfather is touching his mother, but I do not know if the affection is genuine or staged, felt or forced. Now the photograph is two-faced. It might have been the last time, or one of the last, that mother and son were together. After the picture was taken, after we left the place my great-grandmother called “camp,” they had an argument—not just an argument but a steep falling-out that followed years of disputes interspersed with utter silence. In a final act of stubbornness, they chose not to speak to each other again, a decision as final, as frozen in time, as the photograph before me. Just as the trees would outlive them, trees undying in the harsh Michigan winters, so would their angry resolution last longer than anyone predicted. For the rest of their lives, they avoided all contact. No visits or phone calls, no awkward attempts to reconcile. If, God forbid, they found themselves shopping in the same market or sitting in the same mass at St. Paul’s Church, they would ignore each other altogether or, if needed, one of them would leave. My mother, who remained loyal to both her father and grandmother, became a conduit between them, a role that constantly tested her discretion.
My grandfather’s first mistake was to marry a woman and keep the marriage a secret from his own mother. But why? There is no one alive now who can or will answer that simple question. My own mother’s otherwise clear memory suddenly blurs. Her sharp reminiscence crumbles into fragments that tell me nothing. My grandfather, who was 21 at the time, continued to live in his mother’s house after the clandestine signing of his marriage certificate. He told no one—not even his older brother—about the wife whom he would meet after work or late on weekend nights in a small, run-down hotel located above a tavern where the ore miners drank at the end of the day. But in this town of 7,000, secrets were as short-lived as the northern summers. One day after my grandparents had been married for several months, a clerk at the hotel called my great-grandmother with “news.”
My grandfather’s wife was a decent, beautiful woman and later a loving grandmother. Her goodness heightens the mystery of their nights spent above the tavern, husband and wife in top-secret embrace. Why, indeed? There was a time when I regarded my grandfather as an evil, disrespectful son whose sneaky ways poisoned the entire family. Eventually I had to change my mind about him when I began to understand how some people are inclined, rightly or wrongly, to associate secrecy with survival. Twenty years after the generations gathered for this picture, I kept a secret from my own mother and father. It was not too different from my grandfather’s, except that I had coupled with a black man nine years my senior. We lived in the Haight district of San Francisco, not above a bar but directly behind a popular dance club known then as the I-Beam. On Sunday afternoons young gay men lined up for the tea dance while throbbing music leaked out the club’s back doors and into our apartment. Our “marriage” was not only secret but illicit, invalid under the law and against the custom in my family: No one had ever loved or wedded someone black or brown, and—oh, yes—my wife was a man.
For as long as I knew him, my grandfather had concealed something else: His right eye was glass. It was a good fake, too, because you could look straight at him and think that he was afflicted merely by poor vision in one eye. He had lost the real one in a childhood accident, but I was not to hear about it until I was nearly an adult, when I would know better not to ask questions or stare. Every other year my grandfather took a solitary trip to Chicago, where he was fitted with a new artificial eyeball. He never allowed anyone to accompany him, not even the woman whom he chose to marry so secretly.
Surrounding the generations: A gray, washed-out swath of pine and birch sifting muted light. The place, this camp, rests on a thumb of land that my great-grandmother claimed was the size of seven lots, which meant that at least seven houses could be built there, three on each side of the thumb and one at the tip. To a child her property seemed vast, boundless, enough for a hundred houses or more. My great-grandfather, who died 12 years before the photograph was taken, purchased as much acreage as his finances allowed, then constructed a pine log cabin on the tip of land. My great-grandmother helped him with the sawing and hammering and painting, and when it was finished, they spent their summers amid blueberry bushes, lady’s slipper orchids, ground ferns, the birch and pine, and a lake known, because of its shape, as Horseshoe.
Lilies with wide, flat leaves floated on the surface of the lake, and sometimes at twilight, deer could be spotted on the opposite shore, but despite its picturesque qualities, Horseshoe was unswimmable. We would drown if we tried. Thick, putrid mud lay beneath the tranquil surface, especially near the shores, and if you stepped into the water, you would disappear. That was the official story circulating in our family. As a child and as a teen-ager, I asked about the lake often; it seemed such a waste to have water at our feet and not be able to put our toes into it. The responses never wavered; the admonitions held; the muddy water remained off-limits. I began to wonder whether someone in our family—perhaps a child—indeed had drowned in Horseshoe. The ground beneath the camp and the lake was rich in iron ore, imbuing the water and the air with an earthy, metallic tinge, and I imagined the bottom of Horseshoe as a sludge of liquefied metal, mud and the bones of those who had ignored the warnings. Although I wanted to swim across the forbidden lake to the other side or swim the shape of the horseshoe and see for myself whether I would be devoured, the familial myths ruled, and I never made it past the spongy shore.
Inside the camp my great-grandmother cooked on a large, wood-burning stove. She boiled water for noodles, water for coffee, water to wash the dishes afterward—firing up the stove was the only way to have hot water in the woods. As she cooked, her face reddened over the iron surface. Into the holes of the stove my sister and I poked long twigs with marshmallows stuck on the ends. The hot, sugary flesh scorched our fingers and tongues, sent us racing for the cool, ore-laced liquid pumped from wells deep beneath the camp. From the chimney outside came a fragrant cloud of burning pine. At night delicate smoke lingered in the cabin, rising through the floorboards to the attic, and soon I was eased into sleep by the scent of warm wood and the heavy antique quilts pungent with age.
Downstairs in the main room next to the kitchen stood a craftsman player piano, and perched atop it was a stuffed white owl with large, yellow eyes, its wings stretched wide, as if at any moment the bird might fly from the room and take up its rightful position in one of the trees outside. Who killed that beautiful animal? That was another mystery in our family. I’d asked the question as a child and was told by my great-grandmother that it had been presented to her as a gift. Afterward she fled the room to avoid further questioning. We had family members who were hunters of deer, fowl, rabbits and even bear. My great-grandmother cooked bear meat once, but she did not let her guests know what had filled their plates until dessert was served. After taking in this discomforting news, each of them ran into the woods to empty their stomachs, then returned for coffee and warm raspberry pie topped with cream.
I believed in the revenge of that bear. In the blackness of night, a person with an aching bladder had to leave the camp and follow a long path through the woods to reach the outhouse. It was a two-seater, and some of the women in the family did not mind going in together. Day or night I entered alone. At night in my bed, I held myself until the awful stinging pain rose to my chest. When I could hold it no longer, I left my layers of quilt and floral sheets, walked downstairs past the stiff, white owl, past the stove that was still warm, and ran out the back door and down the dark path. There were bears everywhere. I could not see them, but they were there, behind the trees, hunkered down under ground ferns, lapping drinks from the lake. The biggest one, the ghost of the eaten bear, waited behind the outhouse. My stream came fast, but even then there was no relief, for I was too afraid of unseen creatures and shadows cast by the moon. In the morning my great-grandmother complained about men and their poor aim and terrible manners, worse than animals.
Who is missing from the picture? My father, the one who drove us away in the Chevy that morning. My father who feigned a potent distaste for my mother’s relatives, who still does not like to have his photograph taken. That morning he would spin the wheels in the coppery dust, drive fast and then slow, down through the gate of the camp and beyond. It was my mother’s decision, not his, to leave the place everyone called God’s country. My father made his living as a butcher at the A&P and would have stayed forever, trimming ribs and grinding beef. I have a clear memory of his pulling me on a sled over sidewalks glazed with ice. Late at night he returned from his shift reeking of steak and fish, and although we had been sleeping for hours, he came into our room and slipped a snack of candy or crackers into our small hands. I cannot place him in the pre-departure flurry. He is probably standing off to the side, his back leaned against the Chevy, chewing gum and fingering his keys.
My father, absent from memory.
The once-secret wife: perhaps she is the one holding the camera, framing us in this square that will suspend us in hazy timelessness, leaving me footless and perplexed forever, I cannot call her up in the scene, either.
For the remaining 20 years of her life, the years after we left the camp and Michigan behind, my great-grandmother lived alone. In the winter she stayed at a small house in town, and in summer she spent most days at the camp, chopping wood, clearing brush from the shore of Horseshoe Lake, making her own salami, and putting up food for the long, frozen months. At the end of the day, she sat down in a cushioned rocking chair by a window. At her house in town, she watched television while keeping an eye out for passing cars. During those years, when my mother and father brought us back for summer visits, my sister and I were escorted back and forth from her house and my grandfather’s, from one quiet bitterness to another. We lived a split existence, shuttled between whispers and hidden grudges. My great-grandmother lived only 2 miles from her son, but their stubbornness opened a deep chasm along the route from her house to his. In the morning we might be drinking coffee at my grandfather’s house, where we could not speak of his mother, and later the same day, after driving across the void, we’d eat supper at my great-grandmother’s table, where we did not speak of her son or his wife who was, it has to be admitted, kind and loving to us, gave us presents, loved us as a devoted grandmother, but who could not mask her status as an unwanted daughter-in-law.
I am filled with pity for each—Old World mother, one-eyed son, disdained shadow-woman. Now all are dead, he from a heart attack, his wife from lung cancer, and my great-grandmother not from disease or traumatic malfunction of her body. Not even, perhaps, from old age. At 87 she was still splitting wood and baking pies. One autumn afternoon, while ironing sheets on the back porch, she suddenly felt dizzy. She went inside and called a friend, who came immediately to check on her. Feeling light-headed again, my great-grandmother, who swore during card games and could laugh her belly into painful spasms, sat down calmly in her chair by the window and uttered three words: “Here I go.”
And she went.
Behind us, in the forest washed out by imperfect exposure, blueberries grow wild and rampant over the seven lots, down to the edge of the lake, drinking the thick, dangerous water. They are blue, purple or black, and I can still feel them between my fingers. Berries picked from the shade are cool and firm, like dark-blue pearls; the exposed ones are warm and nearly baked on the bush.
I do not know where my love for picking berries came from. There were others who ventured into the woods, picked a handful or a cupful, then walked proudly back to the cottage, having eaten the proof of their brief labor. But for hours I was on my knees or lying on my side or stooping in the heat. I filled empty milk cartons and plastic bowls and tin pans, carried them back up to the kitchen and washed the berries with cold water from the pump, then returned more deeply into woods or to the lake’s edge and resumed picking, picked until the mosquitoes invaded my ears and penetrated my shirt, picked until my great-grandmother yelled through the trees that supper was ready. I returned with welts on my arms and legs, berries spilling from my containers. In her faint Croatian accent, my great-grandmother said Look at what he picked, just look at what that boy has been doing in the woods. We ate bowls of berries smothered with whipped cream as thick as butter, berries heaped on ice cream, wide, dripping slices of pie with pools of berry blood on the plate, berries for breakfast and berries at night, eaten out of coffee mugs before going to bed. I could go out again early the next morning and, upon my great-grandmother s call, return with double the previous day’s harvest.
It must have been during those protracted berry-picking sessions when the adults in my family realized that I was different from other children. I could pass an entire day with the berries and ferns, and I had no interest in anything else. I disappeared into the trees, if not into the deathly water of Horseshoe. When it was believed that I had slipped into the mud, a search party descended to look for me. I protested, asking whether they wanted their pie or not. Later, after my long hours foraging in the woods, my great-grandmother leapt to my defense: Leave him alone. You know he loves it out there, so just let him be. Intime the adults learned to wait for the berry boy.
When my great-grandfather laid the camp’s foundation, he arranged it on the top of the land so that four groups of birch could be spared, one at each corner of the cottage. One summer I used a twig to scratch my initials deep into the white, papery bark of one of those saved trees, and with each subsequent visit, I carved a new set of initials. Over time the earlier marks faded and rose higher on the tree, but they remained legible and began to resemble the natural flaws of the bark. I liked to spread my fingers over the oldest engravings, reading them like a forest boy’s Braille. The last time I saw the tree, when I was 25, it was obviously dying. Rough, black splotches marred the once-handsome surface, and my initials had become almost invisible. Gazing across the woods toward Horseshoe Lake, I noticed brush overgrowing the water’s edge, blurring the shoreline my great-grandmother had labored to keep clear. She had been dead only a year, but life in the woods thrived on, time tumbling into the water, time itself becoming a menace.
I had seen pictures of my great-grandfather, the expert craftsman, the compassion in his eyes as evident as the impressive muscles in his arms and thighs. He was tall, handsome, Italian, and over the years, he had many careers: bartender, stock trader, handyman. A blue-collar Renaissance man, he knew how to build, and the camp was his rustic masterpiece. In 1952 he decided to install a septic tank and indoor plumbing. He began by digging up the ground for the tank. Laden with ore and clay, the earth proved difficult to shovel, but still he chose to toil alone in the summer heat, digging through the day, wiping away sweat and mosquitoes and stopping only for a ham sandwich and bottle of root beer. Come in, my great-grandmother told him, Let it go for now. He ignored her wishes and struggled on with the excavation, piling the weighty earth in tall mounds. My great-grandmother cared less about upgrading the camp’s amenities; she never complained about having to use an outhouse or wood-burning stove, but her husband’s dream compelled him to dig.
Finally, when he put down his shovel for the day, my great-grandfather went inside, pumped water into a glass, and collapsed on the kitchen floor before he could take a drink.
He was unconscious through the night and died the next morning. No one could have predicted it: His beloved land had killed him. And yet even in the stories I had heard about him, my relatives spoke as if his manner of death was a blessing. Better to have died shoveling the earth on your own property than tending someone else’s bar or someone else’s ledgers. Better to die a free man. He adored the land of the camp and so, they suggested, his death came from a labor of love.
So he, too, is missing from the photograph. My great-grandmother once said that he still roamed the woods, a ghostly caretaker of his work in progress. She saw him standing by a tree, holding an ax or shovel, or down by the lake, his back to the water as he looked over his seven lots. Was it my great-grandfather whose steps I heard on my way to the outhouse, and not the spirit of the devoured bear? Each time I visited her, my great-grandmother sat at least once a day on the back porch, peering through the screened windows, looking, looking, looking. At the end of the day, after the fire in the stove turned to embers, after all chores were finished, we stayed with her in the darkness, passed around cups of berries, and listened.
In truth the Italian was not my real great-grandfather. That was something I was to find out incrementally by listening to stories with missing information and oblique references and by asking questions. The one who died at the camp was the beautiful, nearly mythical second husband who swept my great-grandmother off her feet in mid-life. Indeed he had loved my great-grandmother, built the cottage with her, treated my mother as his own granddaughter, but by blood I am not related to him. For years no one had the courage to tell the story of my real great-grandfather.
When she was much younger, in her early 20s, my great-grandmother married a man whose picture I finally was allowed to see in my late teens. The photograph was old, stained around the edges, with a clear image of a man whose features were very different from the other great-grandfather. He was good-looking but not dashing or distinguished. Handsome without masculine panache. He had a nose and ears that were bigger than the other man’s, and a higher hairline. The contours of his face were rounded, not angular. I saw a man, perhaps a sad man, who resembled my grandfather in his Hawaiian shirt or my soft-skinned mother. Most unsettling of all, he resembled me. Studying the photograph I felt at once cheated and reunited.
A few years after their marriage, my real great-grandfather left his wife because he had fallen in love with a married woman who swore her love for him and promised to leave her husband soon. None of my relatives has admitted to knowing much about this woman, and my questions, for the most part, remain unanswered. Memories recede, information blurs, details are elusive; such are the symptoms of not wanting to know and hoping to forget. My mother believes the woman’s name was Violet and that she lived not far from my great-grandparents. Shortly after my great-grandfather abandoned his wife, Violet’s husband fell gravely ill and became permanently confined to a wheelchair. Burdened by guilt or compassion, she then broke her promise to leave her husband.
My great-grandfather begged my great-grandmother to allow him to return. He pleaded for forgiveness, but she refused outright, choosing instead to preserve her pride. My great-grandmother, like her son, was not a forgiving person.
In the end my real great-grandfather had no one. In his small town the tragedy was told and retold in the taverns and mines and beauty shop: the story of the man who was dropped by two women and soon to be dropped from the family bloodline. He was still young when one afternoon he selected a gun from his hunting cabinet and turned the barrel on himself. My great-grandfather, the suicide. For years no one spoke of him, his life or death. I do not know where he was born or what he did for a living. As I write these words, I cannot recall his first name. The picture of him is lost. Peering into the bathroom mirror, 1 am barely reminded of his face.
My real great-grandfather, deleted from history.
Each fall my great-grandmother closed up the camp and returned to her little house in town. Lacking insulation, the cottage was uninhabitable between October and March. She detached the pump in the kitchen, removed the screens from the porch, and secured planks over all the windows to protect the glass from winter storms—and to discourage trespassers. Intruders broke into the cottage twice but stole nothing; perhaps in their minds there was nothing of value to take away. Pie tins, old quilts, decks of playing cards? The stuffed white owl? Once she drove to the camp in the dead of winter in the middle of the night, fearing that someone had broken in. She went in armed only with a flashlight and a crow bar, and after finding nothing amiss, she realized the risk of her solitary mission. What if I found burglars? They could have killed me! They could have clobbered me on the head and left me there bleeding, a stupid old woman! But for years, for decades, she did everything alone, painting and staining the camp s pine log siding, chopping firewood, clearing the growth from the rim of Horseshoe, cutting chunks of ice from the roof. Each time she left the camp in fall, she cried. Had her second husband lived, he would have carried out his plans for insulating the structure and installing a bathroom on the first floor. They might have lived in the woods year-round. They might have turned the attic into two bedrooms instead of leaving it as one, long living quarter with exposed beams, the floor space packed with boxes of dusty vinyl records.
In the last summer of her life, she did not live at the camp. Several times a week, she drove out to the woods, opened the cottage door and walked around inside, but she did not put up porch screens, and she did not reattach the bulky pump to the well. Outside, she did not begin collecting fallen branches for the stove. I spoke to her shortly before her 87th birthday. Her voice, for the first time, sounded weak and broken. You know, I’m getting old and tired. Whoever thought I would live this long? I supposed it was all too much, the years gone by, the loneliness, another long winter without speaking to her own son who still lived two miles away. Even the physical labor was finally daunting. She could no longer grip an ax with sufficient strength or pull a lawnmower over the earthen driveway where grass and weeds grew rampant. The last time we went to the camp together, she stood on the edge of the woods and wept. She could not bear the sight of the brush encroaching upon the lake or the birch succumbing to black splotches.
After my great-grandmother died, my mother inherited the land and the cottage. Although she wanted to keep them in the family, doing so was impractical. My mother lived in California, in a suburban tract home with a cinder-block fence and fruit trees in the backyard. She and my father had settled there more than 30 years before, after the long drive west. My mother loved the camp as much as I did, but there was no possibility of returning to the northern territory, to snow-filled woods and to black-and-white memories. She kept the camp for a year, then sold it to the lawyer who drafted my great-grandmother’s will, and he in turn sold it to someone else. A few years ago, I heard from an aunt who still lives not far from the seven lots that the current owner was adding a room to the cottage, and a garage and insulation and plumbing, but I cannot bring myself to imagine those alterations. I can only wonder if my fading initials can still be read on the birch, or whether the old tree is still there.
In the photograph the mother and her children are saying goodbye. We are about to leave without a certain destination, without knowing much of anything except the fact of our small family, the young husband lingering nervously out of view, waiting for wife and kids to smile. For thousands of miles, we will sit among bags of food and maps. My great-grandmother has baked a ham and placed it in a cooler packed with ice. It’s too early for blueberries, so we will not have a last taste. There’s a new bottle of pickles, a soft loaf of fresh bread, an envelope with savings bonds, two suitcases and a small, ancient camera. It was predicted that we would not go very far, that we would be back by the end of summer.