family pictures

I’ve been driving around lately to get to know my family a bit better. After years of traveling for work, I’ve come home for the first time in a long time. I begin by calling on my aunties, who have tied our family together through good times and bad. They’ve dropped in and out of our lives due to marriages, births, deaths, driving distances, grudges, slights of theirs or ours. But we’re always family. That’s what this bit is about.

I may have met one of my aunts for the very first time in my life. I can’t be certain because there are gaps in my childhood memories. I may have met her during our family’s move from Syracuse. But I can’t be sure. I’ve never remembered much from those days. I’m amazed when my family chews over some milestone in our lives, and it doesn’t register with me at all. Nothing.

It’s a beautiful sunny day. The river shimmers in a light breeze but is otherwise like glass. The wake from a fisherman’s boat is the only disturbance. I find where my aunt stays after wandering around Akwesasne Territory, down this long road, behind a school, overlooking a big grass lawn with woods on the other side. I ask at the desk if my aunt is there. I don’t have to say anything more than her first name. They roll their eyes behind the desk. One says: “Let’s go see if she wants to see you.”

We go down a short hallway and turn into a room. The shades are drawn. The room is darkened. There’s a lump in the bed. My guide asks if my aunt wants to see a visitor today? Nothing. She asks again? More silence. We’re about to leave when a voice, much sharper than I would have thought, asks: “Who is it?”

I’m a stranger to her. We’re introduced. My guide tells my aunt that I’m her brother’s son. She’s my aunt. She barely looks at me. My aunt asks again, as though wondering why anyone would ever want to visit her. “Who are you?”

We go through the introductions again. I give her my name. I’m her brother’s son. She’s my aunt. She repeats my name, then asks once more if I’m her son? No, I tell her gently. I’m her brother’s son. After the fourth time, she raises her head to look at my face. “Are you sure you’re not my son,” she asks? “You have the same name.” But there’s a twinkle in her eye. There’s a trickster in there.

I suggest we get together in the cafeteria so she can get dressed, and so I can get a cup of coffee. I explain that I’ve been driving. She agrees. The nurse winks at me and leaves. For a second there, I thought my aunt was going to give me the bum’s rush.

I run to the car to pick up some pictures, my camera and a notebook. I look over the magazine rack just off the entry and leaf through one on bicycles. A head pops around the corner to inform me that my aunt is waiting for me at a table. That was quick, I think to myself.

As I approach, she looks at me as though for the first time. “That’s him?” The nurse nods toward me. “He doesn’t look like my son.” That’s because he’s your nephew, she tells my aunt. I sit down and complete the next sentence. “I’m your brother’s son. You’re my aunt.”

Her eyes are bright, intense almost. She studies me slightly off tangent; never looking directly at me, sideways glances when she thinks I’m not looking. I lean forward over the table to tell her that I have some pictures. I hope they’ll trigger something like a story. I tell her what I’m about to do, ask if she’d like to see them, then wait for her approval. She nods. I plop down six pictures.

She’s a tiny woman. Small hands. She dresses well, carefully. It matters how she looks, how she dresses. She can’t be five feet in a stretch. She comes from a smaller generation. People weren’t as large back then as they are now. I’m not as big as the kids today either. I was considered tall as a teenager. Not anymore, not with the kids today. So she seems small and very fragile to me.

Her eyes scan one photograph at a time. Her eyebrows are scrunched into a frown. She’s trying to make sense of one particular picture. She’s trying to hide her confusion from me at the same time. It’s sweet. Very human. A sign of a proud woman who understands she’s losing the capacity to remember. At the same time, she knows exactly what’s happening to her. She’s aware, and wary.

“Who is this,” she asks?

I explain it’s her brother, my father. She asks if he’s alright? I tell her that he died seven years ago. Her face can’t hide the shock. But she needs to shift attention to something else, because that’s how she deals with the disease. She shrugs and tells me, “Of course. That’s right. He was in the war, you know.” But her eyes, softer now, have gone back to the picture in her hands.

“You know, he got hurt real bad in the war. What was he in?” The marines, I reply. “Yeah, that’s right. He was in Vietnam,” she says but with a slight upturn in tone at the end of the sentence. She’s looking for confirmation. “Not Vietnam,” I tell her. “He served in World War Two. He fought at Iwo Jima, near Japan. That’s where he got hurt.”

She’s uncomfortable with my correction. I’ve gone a bit too far, corrected too much. “You must be thinking of Tom, Junior,” I add quickly. “Your other brother’s son. He served in Vietnam.” She considers this, and looks at the picture again, nodding her head.

“I can see him now,” she says, “a little bit in you.” It’s the eyes, I tell her. We all have those family eyes. “We all have noses too. We’d be pretty ugly if we didn’t have noses,” she laughs at her own joke. The trickster is back.

That’s how the hour and some goes. We talk about the people in the pictures. She reaches to remember something about them. She wants to share but has trouble finding the memories. Or they float like soap bubbles and don’t make sense. Where possible, I throw in something that I remember. A little story behind the picture, or about the people in them. And so it goes.

It isn’t long before I realize that she’s dropped a lot of her defenses. That’s what they are. She uses her brusque manner to hide the disease, her unease with the loss of memories, the slow deterioration of personality. In defense, she has assumed more and more of one of her character masks; the loud, pushy and even insulting one who shoots first and rarely asks questions later. Take me as I am, or piss off.

I try to take a picture. She snaps: “Don’t do that.” A while later, I try again. She puts a tiny fist up and tells me to knock it off or else. Why not, I ask? “Because I’m not made up for pictures.” I tell her she looks great. She raises her chin and strokes her short hair. “I don’t have any grey, not like you. I got black hair.” She does. Not a bit of grey. I ask why and she says she got it from her father. “I didn’t like him. He used to hit us. He was a drunk.” End of story.

I tell her that the picture she’s holding was taken at Kanehsatake, right after I got back from South Africa. “I used to travel a lot,” she tells me. “I used to fly all over the world; to South Africa, France, Germany, England.” She sees my cocked head. “I worked with American Airlines when I was younger. I got free travel vouchers as part of the job. So I would travel all over, all by myself.”

“I got rid of that man,” she flips her head at some long-dismissed husband. “He wasn’t good to me anyway. I dumped him. I traveled all over the world by myself. Not many girls did that back then, but I did.” A full smile breaks across her face. She’s proud of her accomplishments, of her independence. She’s surrounded by a warm memory and it shows. I look at her. I’m amazed how similar we are, she and me.

“How did you like London,” I ask?

“Oh, I loved it.” She drags the sentence out, savouring every syllable. Her shoulders snap. She shifts in her chair. Her eyes look directly into mine. They are sharp and alive. “I loved every minute that I was there. I loved the people. Well, not all of them. Some were real dicks. Oops. Sorry.” But she isn’t, of course. She enjoys swearing. She enjoys watching the reaction of people when she swears. “I can be a real bitch sometimes. Oops. Sorry again.”

“I liked to travel, you see. To see things. To meet people. I met so many nice people when I was traveling. Not too many people know that I did all that because I travelled alone, you see. I worked for American Airlines and got travel vouchers from the job. So I could hop on planes and go almost anywhere.”

There’s a silence that stretches into a minute or more. She continues to pick up the pictures. But the twinkle is gone. I fiddle with the pictures wondering if I should continue. “Who are you,” she asks?

Just like that, she’s gone.

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12 Comments

Filed under Canada, Indigenous peoples, writing

12 responses to “family pictures

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  2. What a wonderful piece. And what a wonderful woman. Thanks, Shmo.

  3. shmohawk

    Thanks, and she is. I’ll be taking her some more pictures, framed this time, for her 83rd birthday at the end of June. My other aunties will get similar gifts. They’re a great bunch of regal ladies who have the most amazing lives.

  4. KevinG

    A wonderful story. Thanks for sharing it.

  5. Pingback: stageleft:. life on the left side : The Shmohawk Returneth

  6. Saw link at Stage-Left. T’was well worth the visit. They’re right; you write good. Looking forward to visiting again.

  7. What a lovely, and heartbreaking, post. It hits home. My father isn’t well, although he ‘still has all his faculties’ (OK, most of them), and this reminds me of what I may be about to lose.

    Damn. I was trying to bury that.

  8. shmohawk

    I need to correct my aunt’s age. She turns 87 next week. She told me she was 83 years old that didn’t seem right. I double-checked against her birthday. Thanks to all for your comments. Much appreciated. These little bits of writing will find their way into a book that’s in the works, but not the way they read here. The facts will need to change to protect the story.

  9. Shmo,

    Wonderful piece and it hits home for me. 20 years ago I chatted with my grandfather in a similar fashion – he’d remember details of me and my childhood and not know who my father, who was standing next to me and whom I was a near twin of, was. And then it would switch a minute later.

    Again, great job.

  10. Great post shmohawk, it brings a personal fear a little further out into the light, but it’s a great post.

    Both my grandmothers died in nursing homes with Alzheimer’s. I recall going to visit when the kids were younger and discovering that Nana didn’t remember me, and didn’t remember any of our three boys either, but she did remember my wife and our daughter – odd how that works isn’t it?

    I recall her asking my wife (3 or 4 times during the visit) who the nice young man she had brought to visit was and being gently told (3 or 4 times during the visit) that I was her grandson, she would say almost exactly the same thing each time, “yes, I have a grandson with that name, but that’s not him, he seems like a nice young man though, who are those little boys with him“.

    … it was the last time I saw her, she passed on later that year.

    Good writing evokes emotion, and you did.

  11. shmohawk

    Sorry for not getting back to you, and you, and you. I’ve been down south for a week, in the car, on my bicycle, waving to Obama, checking out the wind at Kitty Hawk, and following the steps of my father in some way. Thanks, you and you and the rest for the kind comments. Much appreciated.

  12. Claudia Bürckner

    First… you never reveal the age of a lady. Second… when you write the floor I stand on…moves. Third… when I grow up I wish to write like you.

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