There are no perfect photographs of my grandmother. Each is slightly blurred, too dark or too bright. Creased, bent, broken, and faded. There are tape spots on them, markings from years spent in family albums and various drawers and envelopes. All are different sizes—taken with different cameras and printed at different labs and worn down by different fingers over the years. It all adds up to a kind of rich tapestry of family history. A randomness of human experience that never feels quite matched with camera phones or digital archives.
She died the other day. So this is what’s left of her—things imperfect and touched and loved and part of a much larger whole.
In my mind, she always looked the same. Nearly identical in 1943 as a teenager as in 1979 when she’s holding me as a newborn baby. It’s not necessarily that she looks old, just aged. Then again, she was never really a child. Her father died when she was young, as did her twin sister and other siblings, leaving just two daughters and a single mother in a rural parish in western Louisiana in the 1930s. Not the kind of place for a young girl, and so she was never really a young girl in any way that anyone can really remember. I’m sure there were stories once upon a time, but we only grew up with the ones that were told afterwards.
She grew up speaking Cajun French and picking cotton and working odd jobs after school to help her mother make ends meet. She didn’t graduate high school. After the war, my grandfather came home from the Pacific and they met at a barn dance and got married and moved to New Orleans to try for a better life. He had worked on the Higgins boats that made the Normandy landing and so when he returned he went back to work for the same company. They bought a plot of land in a swamp just west of the city for a song and when the land finally got filled in they built the house with their bare hands.
The first photos I can recognize of myself are in front of this house. The red yellow bricks and magnolia trees in the background. When I was young I would overturn rocks by the shed to play with the doodlebugs that lived there in the dirt. I would climb the magnolia trees and when the flowers were in bloom I would pick them apart petal by petal in the high branches surrounded by their faint milky perfume. I would somersault and kick and imagine myself a ninja warrior on the two large squares of grass out front of their front room. There was a persimmon tree in the backyard and when it bore fruit my grandmother would call me over to sit sentinel by the roadside and sell them to the neighborhood. So she was my first employer as well.
At some point they stopped taking photographs. There are the odd ones from when my grandparents met. Their first trip together to the city. Friends long forgotten standing in fields, next to fences. Young men in uniforms on their way to Europe. All small cajun men. Picnics or just times that at the time seemed worth remembering. Then the road trips out west when my mom was a young girl in the 60s. Snapshots of her hanging out of a window feeding bears at Yellowstone. High school and beyond and then me as a young unaware thing and then eventually it all fades into memory. Imperfect. Too dark or too bright. Creased, bent, broken, and faded. But loved. And imprinted somewhere far more lasting and permanent, where in the end we all live on.