Tuesday, April 30, 2024

The Great Archivist

This photo of my mother is 91 years old.  She is 92.  It is the only photo we have of my mother as a child other than in a couple of group pictures.  When I was cleaning out the closet that had exploded with all the photos, I found a bag of loose photographs and letters.  When I looked through it, I didn't know most of the people in the pictures.  There were letters from my maternal grandfather to my maternal grandmother from the 1920's.  There were photos of my great grandfather and great grandmother on my mother's side from the turn of the century.  

"Where in the hell did these come from?"

I took the bag over to my mother's house on Sunday.  My mother couldn't remember ever having seen any of this before.  All I can come up with is that her sister had given these to her just before she died.  My aunt had that greedy hillbilly selfishness when it came to materials and had always been mean about my mother.  She was probably jealous of her as my mother was the family beauty.  My mother must have given them to me at some point unless my aunt did.  I have no recollection.  

My mother was taken with the baby picture.  She stared at is for a long time before she put it down, but then she picked it back up and looked at it again.  

"That's where we lived when I was a kid," she said.  She has told me about that house many times, a former grain barn that they had converted into a house.  It had chinks that let the wind and snow blow through in the winter.  The three kids slept in one bed which was necessary when it was cold.  They were very, very poor.  It was the Great Depression.  

We went through the other pictures.  Most of them were of her father's family.  I didn't know any of them other than my grandfather.  There he was as a young man.  He was not handsome.  You might say he was the opposite.  The entire clan was without real beauty.  There were my grandfather's parents.  I don't think I ever met them.  If I did, I was an infant.  My mother said she didn't see them much.  They lived in another Ohio town.  She did not like her father's father, she said.  When she got old enough to have breasts (which happened early), he would grab them and tease her.  No, she did not care for him at all.  

Nor her father, really.  He was a n'er do well.  He was lazy and hardly worked.  They lived on property in a house owned by her mother's parents, Clarence and Nettie.  I knew them.  They were very religious Mormons who, according to the letters I had given my mother, had travelled to Salt Lake City in the early '20s to be "sealed in the Temple" for eternity.  That's a Mormon thing.  A goal.  It takes some doing.  My mother and I were thinking about how they may have gotten there.  They had a model T Ford, but roads would have been pretty rough and a Model T probably went 30 mph, so if they drove there and back, it would have been a harrowing journey.  They could have taken the train, though.  I saw a show loosely based on historical fact which depicted the Mormon influence to get the railroad built through Salt Lake.  By all accounts, the Mormons were pretty gangsta when it came to things like that.  In all likelihood, I think, my great grandparents would have taken the train.  

Clarence was a bad ass himself. He came from Iowa to southern Ohio as a sharecropper, but he saved enough money to buy his own farm.  It was a nice farm with hills, a creek, and surrounding woods.  I remember that he always wore work overalls, and he was renowned for his strength and endurance.  Clarence didn't care much for my mother's father she told me as we looked through the photos.  He always talked down about how lazy he was and that he was selfish.  "He'd go to the grocery store and buy a pound of bologna and a loaf of bread and walk around the store and eat it all without bringing anything home to his wife and children," my mother reported him as saying.  Clarence would send food over to his daughter and grandchildren and eventually took my mother's older brother to live with them in the farmhouse.  He never came back to live with his parents.  My mother would help her grandmother who had suffered a stroke in childbirth that left her fairly crippled.  Both her grandmother and grandfather worked her hard, she said, but she liked to eat with them as the farm was fairly well off.  The only luxuries in life she ever got were from her grandparents and some other relatives.  Her mother, she said, made her dresses out of old grain sacks.  The kids at school used to make fun of her.  BUT--when her aunt bought her two dresses from the store, she didn't like them.  She told me this with a grin of guilty confession.

When I went to her house yesterday, she told me she had read the letters.  She was stunned by them, she said.  Her father had actually courted her mother, and in the letters he called her "darling" and "sweetheart" and talked about how much he had enjoyed dancing with her.

"They must have been church dances," my mother said.  "In one letter he was wondering if maybe he could take her to his church one Sunday."

Apparently, he had been attending church with her.  As my mother recalled her own childhood, dances were held in people's houses.  She remembers helping her grandmother roll up the carpets to make the dance floor.  

Her father had gone to Florida to build houses, she says, when she was a little girl.  Some of the letters were to her mother while he was working there.  

"He said tell the kids I will bring them presents from Florida.  I don't remember him ever giving us anything."

Looking at the photos and letters, I think, were somehow good for my mother.  I was worried because she said she didn't like looking at all the old 8mm film I had digitized.  

"It makes me sad," she told me.  But the photos from her childhood were different for some reason.  I think--I guess--that my mother feels guilty about the breakup of her marriage to my father.  That whole thing ends up with me living in my car. . . but that is a story for another time.  

I am, at this point, overwhelmed with things to scan, put in order. . . simply to archive.  I have realized that that is what I am, in many ways--an archivist.  I don't throw much away that tells something of the past.  As I've said, I open drawers and find things I'd forgotten about from my early adulthood onward.  I'd have more if my mother hadn't thrown boxes and boxes of my stuff away long ago.  Now I am running out of room.  

I think now of "God" as this--The Great Archivist.  He would be the keeper of all things.  Now that is something I can admire.  I want to be The Great Archivist myself.  

The thing, though, is that when I die, all of this will go to the dump.  No one will give a shit unless something ends up in a thrift store and some nut wants to use things for collaging.  

I'm glad I found that photo for my mother.  It makes her very happy--even though she looks like a maniacal toy doll come to life in a horror movie.  But by and large, all babies do.  

No comments:

Post a Comment