I knew two of my great-grandmothers, and was close to one of them, but I have a picture of myself as an infant in the arms of a third, and of this one I have no memory. She lived halfway across the country, we rarely saw her, and she died when I was still small. In the photograph she is smiling and holding me like a football, or like a platter of fruit which she has just found in a surprising place. She is wearing a striped muumuu and, clearly, a wig. We are in the hallway of her home in Jefferson, Iowa. There’s an American flag to one side and a shelf full of plastic flowers and knick-knacks. Behind us, at the edge of the picture and atop a piece of furniture, there is discernible the antler and ear of a painted deer statue that would later inhabit the atrium of my grandparents’ home in Concord, California. The picture must have been taken in late 1973 or early ’74.
What I know about this great-grandmother I can summarize in one paragraph. Elizabeth Ann Wilson was born in Greene County, Iowa on New Year’s Day 1889. People called her Lizzy. She was the daughter of George Wilson and Hannah Naylor. She married my great-grandfather Charlie and they had one child, a daughter, who would become my paternal grandmother. Lizzy was a schoolteacher. In a box somewhere I have a copy of a Philology textbook from which she taught, with her notes in the margins. According to my grandmother, my great-grandfather once discovered that Lizzy kept a bottle of whiskey hidden in a cupboard. From this single episode my grandmother – a lifelong teetotaler – concluded that her mother was a secret alcoholic. Lizzy began to slide into dementia when she got quite old. The Apollo moon landings she believed to have been staged in Hollywood. Airplanes to her were demons screaming through the sky.
Every Christmas my wife and I agree that we ought to print more of our family photographs rather than store them on the computer, but we never get around to it. The other day my wife confided that, in fact, she had mixed feelings about owning very many printed photographs, even of the children. The trouble, she said, is that in the end they all go tragically astray. At best they are kept in the family for a few generations and then are lost or thrown out. More likely they end up in bins at antiques shops or in the hands of strangers for whom the faces in the pictures suggest nothing more than an era or a puzzle of relationships and circumstances. Our names and biographies effaced, new ones are imagined for us by people whose names and stories we ourselves will never know. Cut off from us, our images live an afterlife of their own. But this thought does not produce in me the same dismay that my wife feels.