This season of triple digits in Arizona–followed by a few days of overdue, soaking monsoon rains–is the perfect time to rummage indoors through personal, vintage photos.
The best of them, like peering into the Grand Canyon, leave me with a mix of joy and insignificance. They tell stories about humanity before I entered the picture.
I’m fortunate to have accumulated photographic treasures from both sides of my family. Some of them, tattered and faded, date back to the early 1900s.
I don’t recall seeing this image from July 1955 before. I imagine one of my maternal grandparents captured it on their Huntersville, North Carolina farm. Sixty-six years later, I stumbled across it in a forgotten album. Today, on July 26, 2021, it is speaking loudly through the sepia tone.
If she were alive, the woman on the left (my mother, Helen Ferrell Johnson) would be celebrating her ninety-eighth birthday today. In 1955, she held my sister Diane on her lap and celebrated her thirty-second birthday with her sister Frances (cradling her first born, Michael) and brother Jim by her side in her original home state.
Mom has been gone since 2013. Grief has taught me there will be days like today when I miss her smile, wisdom, perspective and resolve. Fortunately, thanks to the passage of time, the abyss of grief–the Grand Canyon of loss–subsided in 2015 as I wrote.
When you love someone, grief is the price you pay. It is everlasting, sometimes surprising, but often predictable. Photos, birthdays, anniversaries, and specific songs (I’ll Be Seeing You sung by Peggy Lee) provide the cues.
What makes this photo a rare find is that I have just a few images of my mother and her adult siblings together. Helen left North Carolina right after World War II to begin a new life in a bigger city … St. Louis, Missouri … where she and Dad met, married, settled, raised Diane and me, and discovered their share of happy, challenging, and unbearable moments together.
Jim and Frances stayed to build their lives in the Tar Heel State. They were teenagers on the farm in the late 40s. In the 50s, Jim and Frances (born in 1930 and 1932 respectively) left the nest, but returned frequently to this front porch that faced west. They met and married partners, traveled a few miles down the road to raise their families, and remained near their parents.
What I love most about this photo is the sense of possibilities and optimism in the eyes of Helen, Frances, and Jim. The wear and worry of life hadn’t yet entered the picture. By the mid 60s, Helen had two children. Frances had three. Jim had two. My grandparents loved all seven of us grandchildren. We now lead disparate lives.
Mom loved her brother. He was a friendly, handsome man, who loved to fish, hunt, drink beer, and smoke cigarettes. Unfortunately, the harsh realities and complexities of life had a way of catching up with Jim. In 1987, he died of lung cancer at age fifty-six. When she learned of Jim’s passing, it frightened her. Mom saw his demise as a harbinger of her own mortality. She retired immediately after returning from his funeral.
Frances still lives in North Carolina. She is the most significant personal connection I have to my southern roots. I spoke with her a few months ago. She isn’t the spitfire she once was, but is content with her husband in their Davidson, North Carolina home.
Like all of us who remain, Frances is thankful to have survived the pandemic. She is looking forward to her ninetieth birthday, which she will celebrate January 1, 2022. In 2015, two years after Mom died, I traveled south to see Frances. At that time, we needed to see and hug each other to escape the throes of grief.
My quest to rediscover my southern family and find comfort with Frances ultimately became fodder for From Fertile Ground, my first book. It’s the story of my journey and grief told in part through the writings my grandfather and mother left behind. If you’ve lost someone close recently and are living with the fog of grief, I hope you’ll pick up a copy of my book. Reading it may soothe you.
With each passing year, I continue to find more fertile ground from the photos and writings my mother and father left behind. Reexamining them and rediscovering their importance reactivates the love I feel for imperfect–yet beloved–family members. They shaped my past and the memories of them still inform my present.