The Sunday Rumpus Essay: Photos that Remember Us
“Time and place are also the foundations of very large relations; and all finite beings at least are concerned in them.” –John Locke
It was late when we got the call telling us my uncle was in the hospital, when my father and I got in his car and drove on the L.I.E. through the chilly September night. We were terrified. Or he was. I remember feeling like a mere accomplice—accompanying him at my mother’s urging so that he could make it to his brother’s beside without going into traumatic shock. The roads were empty and I couldn’t comprehend why he was driving so slowly. I thought there had to be a law that protected us from getting caught speeding during emergencies like this, and I wanted to say Faster, drive faster, you’re allowed to, you know, but I didn’t. I think the ride was mostly silent—statically silent—with one of us jostling the radio dial for life traversing outside.
My Uncle David died a week later from heart complications related to a recent surgery. The pleasant but brisk doctor in the ICU kept talking about how they couldn’t get my uncle’s platelets up, while the rest of us, his family and friends from near and far, silently pondered the same question: Was my uncle sober at the time he was admitted to the hospital? He was, right? He’d had one, maybe two months of sobriety at that point. Not a sign of heroin, just a steady dosage of Methadone, but that’s expected with recovering addicts, right?
His remaining days were blurry to me. My mother and siblings and my uncle’s family offered their fair share of love and good omens. His friends did, too, one of them stricken with his own chronic disease and another abetted by a cane, proof that he had come at life too fast and hard and now had to stumble along to catch up with it. I was busy writing this narrative in my head—collecting details about how the percussive monitor beats simultaneously felt like a terror and a comfort, how the words ‘I’m sorry’ passed from one set of familial lips to another, how I was watching my family’s coping mechanisms splay out in front of me—and I believed this narrative was going to push me closer to being a better, more observant professional writer. It was a quixotic, yet honest device my 20-year-old self used, trying to create memory though the memory itself hadn’t finished yet.
For a while I tried doing this exercise of placing a family photo in the middle of a notebook and using the preceding pages to write a fictional account of how the scene came to be. There was a picture I had found of my dad’s biological father driving a red convertible—a tiny, translucent female hand to his side, almost out of frame. Whose hand? There was one of my mother and father in 1986, three years before I was born, wherein my mother seems to be nursing my father’s swollen eye, and so I tried to create a story of how a young man received a black eye in the first place.
Still another: me at twelve or thirteen years old at my aunt’s wedding, standing alone next to a volleyball net with a puzzled look on my face. How is it that in an event surrounded by people I could be captured so perfectly by myself?
The goal was to provide inspiration for a novel about my family, and these photos were fodder, but in a strange way they were also crippling my creativity, reminding me too much of my family and not providing enough room for my fictional characters to breathe. My fictional renderings didn’t seem adequate to describe the real people in my life, who were part of an astonishing and murky history.
The short version is this: My father and his brother David were birthed by young parents and given up for adoption to Italian families that lived forty miles from each other on Long Island. David and my father spent twenty-eight years apart, even living within miles of their birth parents, until their biological mother went searching for them in the early-90’s, but it has been verified (by my father and his friends alike) that David and my father had mutual friends in common this entire time, and that David had actually been to a couple of my father’s band’s shows as a fan before either of them knew that they were brothers. That revelation is uncanny enough, but further colorizing my family history (for better or worse) is the lineage of addiction that harbors there: my uncle’s heroin addiction, my biological grandfather’s deadly alcoholism, one of his daughter’s own alcohol struggles, and, as if a stand-in for addiction, my father’s proclivity to anxiety and depression. Let it also be said that when my father finally did find out who his father was, their correspondence existed in letters he was writing to him in prison. And so, despite these miraculous discoveries, a veil existed between my father’s life on Long Island and his biological father’s mythology in upstate New York.
My father’s biological father, John Dean, drowned himself in the Mohawk River in Nelliston, NY. A man fishing there discovered him and alerted the police, who then alerted one of his daughters, Aimee. This was in 1999, only six years after my father, and I too, had met him for the first time. I met him twice, actually, and I don’t remember either time because I was so young. I do remember salamanders. On a chance walk to a creek I spotted a couple of them skipping into the foamy runoff, disappearing and returning, but that’s all I can recall from the visit. Save for a few photos I had found of me and my grandfather, I have no physical, concrete memory of him.
In one photo I found while digging through family albums I am seated next to him and his daughter Aimee and am showing a nervous but amiable expression, next to his seemingly serious but pacified one. His daughter, my aunt, looks to be in mid-sentence. My grandfather and I are wearing similar clothing: striped shirts, shorts, and sneakers with high, rolled-down white socks. Our hairstyles are close too, though his hair appears to be thinning.
Months later, I found a similar photograph: in this one, though, I seem to have vanished from the frame, as if photo-shopped out. My aunt is again in mid-motion, and my grandfather’s expression has turned sad. The car that is poking in the bottom of the frame suggests that this photo was taken just minutes before or after the one with me in it.
These two photos in succession cast a unique metaphor for remembrance, a state of passing through that either retains me in the time and place or completely plucks me out of it, a sensation that William James in The Principles of Psychology alludes to when he writes, “…the re-collected past and the imaginary past may be much the same.”
If this is true, it may explain why I feel closer to my dad’s biological father, whom I met twice, than my mother’s father, who lives only a couple miles from me in Manhattan and who I see a handful of times a year. It may explain why when I hear stories of John Dean, I can see myself making the same gaffe, using the same phrase, or having the same reaction ascribed to him. It may explain why gathering these testimonials about him explain more about me and my history than it does about him. And if these discoveries are mere rediscoveries, then they are unconditionally poised for self-examination. During family gatherings you will often hear the phrase “No, it happened like this,” which implies that memory is an imperfect and biased act. At any moment, I can choose to believe that I exist in scene captured in a photo or that I can be completely dissolved from it.
My brother Michael has my uncle Dave’s stature, hair, expressions, and chest. My father and I often joke about Michael’s prominent chest (he’s only thirteen after all), but looking at him sometimes recalls visions of my uncle, who died five years ago. My mother fights this comparison. I think she doesn’t want my brother being equated with a heroin addict. But I often retort, “David was handsome, Mom, and plus, he was the funniest and smartest addict I’ve ever known,” which, I guess, is mostly true. A side note: My uncle was busted for selling heroin out of a New York City hot dog cart in the 1990’s, and to this day, whenever I hear someone on the street order a dog with “the works,” I hope to God that they’re not receiving what my uncle would’ve pawned off.
When my father officially met his brother at age 28, the story goes that the two were walking somewhere in Queens when my father fell ill, from anxiety or bad Chinese food or both. After my father complained for an hour and wished aloud that he could go home, David grew sick of my father’s gripes, walked ahead of him, and proceeded to throw up in a trashcan. “See?” he yelled at my father, “I lead by example.” David was like that, making jokes at the expense of his dignity. When we talk about him now, we empathize his self-effacement. It’s become part of our ritual. Our memories of him erupt into loud fits of embarrassing, hilarious stories, so much so that it seems like we’re talking about a character, and not a late family member. This could be another reason why my mother reproaches us for comparing my brother to David—perhaps, subconsciously, she doesn’t want to see her son molded into a version of family history, but wants him to exist on his own terms.
And when John Dean’s daughters (from a relationship separate from my father’s birth mother) recall their first time meeting their half-brother David, their words exist on a similar modular plane. To them, and to my father too, David was a splitting image of John Dean, and they found themselves connecting these two men’s histories, coalescing the pieces (physical traits, demeanor, habits) into a shared memory. David’s heroin addiction and John Dean’s alcoholism certainly fostered this comparison. To us on the outside, recognizing an addict is often very hard, and David and John Dean, who were both very neat in their personal appearance and their home environments, could fool you into thinking they were okay. As John Dean’s one-time wife, his daughters’ mother, recalls, John was extremely adept at appearing sober while being under the influence of large amounts of alcohol, but when he started getting careless about his appearance, other signs started to show themselves. And I guess, too, that when these daughters met their half-brother, they were seeing not only their father in David’s face, but his apparent neatness and, subsequently, the potential for this neatness to destroy itself. There’s reason to believe that John’s alcoholism and David’s heroin use united them when they did meet, but whether or not they would’ve tried to appear sober to one another will never be known.
The photos remain inside my notebook, though I don’t try to create fiction from them now. Instead, they do what they were intended to do in the first place—help recall. In viewing these photos occasionally, I now focus on the changeability of expression, of how the idiosyncrasies of capturing moments often change our perception of them. When John’s ex-wife recently told me that John felt intimated by me (just a child) when we first met, I allow that perception to influence my view of our respective expressions in our photo. Is John’s face now sheepish? Is mine conniving?
My father, after exchanging multiple letters with John Dean, visited him in prison, where he was serving time for alcohol-related parole violations. Their meeting was quaint and peaceful, and there were no phony airs or embarrassment on John’s part about where he was. I stumbled upon the letters a few years ago—they were replete with general formalities about health and family and work, but what I found so interesting was the uniformity of both men’s handwriting; they appeared to be one in the same. One of John’s daughters noticed the same curious fact, and I’m not sure if my father was aware of it at the time he was writing his letters, but the similarity has become one of those bizarre traits that only a lurid family history can explain, or cannot.
The author’s father, the author’s Aunt Aimee, and John Dean
The various ways my family members tried to control their own lives is similar to the way a writer tries to steady his or her own thoughts, to parse painful experiences and receive catharsis. We search for the dominion to steady our hand, to white-knuckle alcoholism, if only for a while, or layer the page with meaningful words. And, finally, to declare that I’m still here, I’m still with you.
When John Dean’s body was discovered by the fisherman, all of his faults, habits, insecurities, and pain, wouldn’t have been made apparent; those existed in a letter he had written to his daughters before he jumped in. Nor was John’s crippling injury made apparent, either. While working as a meat boner in the Adirondack Mountains in the 80’s, John cut his forearm and severely injured a tendon, an error that brought him extreme pain and may have served as a catalyst for his eventual alcoholism. My father likes to think that when John jumped into the Mohawk River and ended his life, there was a brief epiphany that this was a mistake, and that despite trying to save himself, his arm was too weak to overcome the current. I like to think this, too, and in the story I will eventually tell my kids about my grandfather, perhaps this version will present itself. If this is pure imagination, it may still not be far from recollection.