“A Photograph of My Father” is an essay I wrote a few years ago.
It is longer than the usual blog post.
The photograph of my father arrived in mid-March—less than a month ago–sent in an email by one of my cousins. The subject heading of the email, innocent enough, “Your Daddy Fishing.” It was an old black and white photograph but, even scanned and emailed, it was perfectly clear.
What I see: My father is standing in ankle-deep grass, at the edge of a stream, the far bank a solid wall of trees. He is holding a rod and reel and he has cast out into the stream. He is concentrating on the fishing line, and his mouth is curved in a slight smile. He is unexpectedly handsome. Those are the basics.
I sat for almost an hour, not thinking about much of anything, my mind unmoored, wandering without focus in a landscape that included grocery lists, scenes from the novel I had just finished, the laundry, and an article in The New Yorker about Stephen Hawking. Occasionally, I looked around my living room and smiled at the Lego tower my grandson and I had built the weekend before or at the framed photograph of my cat that a friend gave me for my birthday. Occasionally, I looked at the photograph of my father. Improbable as it was, I had never seen this photograph, and now it interrupted the normal rhythms in the room. Everything seemed to be slowing down, and the sounds from the street outside my old casement windows were muffled. I had no idea what to do, so I waited.
And as I sat looking at that photograph, something stirred, some rumbling began, and I experienced the first of the many waves of understanding and memory that lay ahead. I suddenly knew that of all the photographs I have of my father, who died when I was sixteen, this was the only one that looked like the man I remembered. It would be only a matter of days before I realized that it looked like the man I had not, until I saw it, remembered at all.
At some time, during the few months after he died and before I left for college, I forgot him. And since that time, I have had no memories of my father. I have had only family stories of things I should have remembered, but not one memory of my own. Looking at that picture was like walking through a door, seeing someone you had forgotten you loved, and simply saying,
“Oh, it’s you.” I sat in that chair and I felt the stirring and heard the rumbling, and I couldn’t stop crying.
“Daddy,” I wanted to say, “Where have you been?”
Although everything seemed to happen all at once, in fact I sat for a very long time and stared unblinking at the photograph, mind now sharp and clear as ice, not because it was the only one that looked like my father, but because I hadn’t known, until I saw it, that the others didn’t look like him. I have a great many pictures of my father, and they are wonderful and endearing. In one of them I am a baby, and he is holding me gingerly, a look of pure love on his face.
In another, I am probably two, and there is snow. Daddy is squatting, his arms around me, his face partly concealed by his hat. I look content. His face is next to mine. And yet, even that photograph has seemed like a picture of two other people. There has never been anything about it that was familiar.
In one of my favorites I am a little older, I’d guess five or six. The carpet of brown leaves, my jacket, and Daddy’s flannel shirt all suggest it is late fall. He is crouched down again, showing me how to plant a small sapling that in the yellowed photograph I can still identify as pine. I think I like that one mostly because my mouth is open wide in an unselfconscious yawn, and I have clearly lost interest.
There are photographs of the two of us together right up to my teenage years. I am getting lanky, probably ten or twelve, in the pictures of Daddy and me holding up fish we have caught, and I must be fifteen, or very near it, in yellow and blurry photos of the two of us in the snow. In one, I am holding on to Daddy’s arm, in the other I have stretched my legs and arms out in a joking sort of dance performance.
I do not remember ever being confident or carefree enough to have done that. In both photographs, Daddy is facing the camera, his hands in his pockets, looking calm. If I was fifteen in those pictures, as I believe, he had only a year to live.
There are others. I have framed most of them and they hang on my walls, or sit on my chests and tables, along with photographs of my mother, my aunts, and my cousins. I spent years poring over the pictures of Daddy, trying to feel something, trying to remember something. I never did, and I finally stopped trying. They all show a tall, handsome, very appealing man who looks like Gary Cooper and is completely absorbed in whatever he is doing. I know many of the facts of his early life, but they are family information. I am not, in my bones, a part of his story. The photograph that came last month is different, and it has changed a great many things.
On the day I opened the email and saw the photograph, I could not stop looking at it. It wasn’t long before I started emailing it to old friends, people who knew me when I was a girl, people who knew my father. I was thrilled when an old boyfriend said he knew where the picture was taken. He had barely begun when I remembered. I knew that place. I had been there many times while my father tried to teach me to fly cast. He had chosen that particular spot because the water was calm and there were fewer overhanging limbs to catch the line of an uncertain child. He always cast first, to remind me how it should look. He would point to a small, partially hidden spot across the creek. He would close his eyes for a minute or two before he lifted the rod just high enough and, almost before you knew it had happened, he would flick his wrist, and the line would float out in an arc and land precisely where he had aimed. How could I have forgotten all this?
After a week, I begin to see details in the photograph. It is high summer on the bank of the stream where my father stands. I am now certain that he is holding a rod with a top-mounted spincast reel. The line is bent at the angle that says a fish is on the other end. He is holding the rod steady with his left hand and reeling the fish in with his right, and he plays out the line with the delicacy of touch only possible in someone for whom the mundane action has become both sacred and completely familiar. He stands straight and tall, his full attention on that line and whatever is on the other end of it, and I believe that smile is for some private happiness. He is wearing a t-shirt and the old jeans I now also remember. The t-shirt was olive green, and even in the black and white photograph I can see that the jeans are wet around the bottom. I know he has waded out into the creek. He looks young. He was forty-six, if the date on the photograph is accurate, and in six years he would be dead.
I was ten when someone captured this moment on film. It has been waiting for me all this time. There is nothing in the photograph to distract from that central figure. He is surrounded by the lush growth of the summer woods. There is no break in the trees as they dip right down to the stream on the other side. He stands in high grass and undergrowth.
There is nothing to distract you, unless you count the gun.
Strapped to my father’s hip is a large holster with the grip of a pistol of some sort showing at the top. A friend who knows about firearms was sure–a revolver, .22 caliber. I looked up “revolver” and didn’t have to read past two phrases–“revolving cylinder,” and “six bullets.” The memories of the gun slipped into my consciousness, lit with the natural sunshine of a spring day. I wanted to go outside and shout it to the neighborhood, “I remember!” Daddy taught me how to use that revolver. I could see the cylinder and feel the bullets between my fingers as he helped me load them. I was nervous, and the bullets I dropped made a clinking sound as they hit the floor.
On weekends we walked up the hill for target practice. I nailed the old paper targets to a tree. They were tan with concentric circles that were just lines at the outside but were solid black toward the center. When I looked for them on the Internet, there were slight differences, but the pictures I found were my targets, without a doubt. I remembered racing out to see how I had done, taking down the old target, putting up a new one, and walking back to where Daddy was waiting for me to try again. He encouraged me to keep the targets so I would know my aim was getting better. Soon after the photograph arrived and I had gotten interested in the gun, someone remarked that there must have been quite a kick from shooting that revolver and, as quietly as taking a breath, one of those clear mental pictures formed, almost as if it were projected on the wall of my living room. Daddy stood behind me when I fired that gun, bracing my back, his arms stretched the length of my arms, his hands covering my hands to steady my aim and to absorb the impact as I fired the powerful weapon.
Everyone I knew had a reaction to the photograph. A friend in Michigan was puzzled by what she saw as the “paradox” of the fishing rod and the gun. It was the first thing she saw, and it evoked for me the whole mythology of the South. Daddy never went fishing in the hot months without that gun because in the summer, in the deep South, there are snakes. To someone who lives in a different climate, it was a paradox. To those of us from Georgia, it was just good sense.
Along the banks of any southern stream, fat water snakes are swimming, hanging from trees over streams, or staying cool under overhanging rocks. They are not poisonous like their close kin, the water moccasins, but they will bite. The lore that these are moccasins is the common currency where I come from, in spite of the evidence amassed by various wildlife organizations that water moccasins do not live in areas as far above sea level as my part of Georgia. I grew up believing those snakes were water moccasins, and deadly. I wonder now if Daddy believed it, or if he just repeated it to be sure I was doubly cautious when I swam in the creek.
A few feet from the water where the ground is dry, there are likely to be copperheads, a type of pit viper whose behavior includes freezing at the sign of danger. They are entirely still, and it easy to overlook them. These “land moccasins” are unforgiving. Get too close, and they strike. And unlike the water snakes, they carry powerful poison in their fangs. I have never forgotten the time I had broken a basic rule of walking in the woods. I wasn’t watching my feet, and I looked down just in time to jump back from where I was about to put my boot on a large copperhead.
But most of the snakes we lived with every day weren’t dangerous. I remember my father reaching down to lift huge king snakes out of harm’s way. King snakes are constrictors, and they are immune to the venom of most poisonous snakes. Daddy had explained that if it weren’t for the king snakes, there would be so many copperheads in the woods that he would be afraid to let me go down the trail. One day he called me into his bedroom and lifted me up so I could see out the window and right down the hill where a king snake was just finishing off a large copperhead. Every spring, Daddy would take off on a Saturday morning, his pistol on his hip, and be gone all day. He was walking up and down the creek bank, at least a mile in both directions from the house, shooting as many of the large snakes as he could spot. This would usually take several days over a couple of weekends. I now realize it was his way of helping those king snakes with a big job. On warm days in the winter, a king snake—nearly five feet long—lay stretched in the sun on the retaining wall just outside our front door. When Mother wanted to get to her car and refused to walk by that snake, I would see Daddy lifting him as gently as a baby and moving him further away. I don’t believe he even thought about it. He was just a part of it all, and the fly casting, the lifting of those big snakes, the shooting, all of it, every single thing he did in those woods was like a careful dance. He moved in silence and left no footprint in his world.
A few nights ago, I decided to look for some images of .22 revolvers dating from 1956 or earlier, when the photograph was taken, and by midnight, I had imported twenty pictures to my computer and had started deleting the ones that weren’t right, that weren’t my gun. Those included revolvers with barrels longer than six inches, revolvers with elaborately carved grips, and some that just didn’t look right for reasons I couldn’t figure out. I had no idea what I was looking for, but I was certain that when I saw it I would know. By midnight I was tired but was confident I had found something that was at least very close to what I wanted, so I printed the image and I went to bed. The next morning, as I looked at the picture, another memory clicked into place.
Daddy taught me how to take that revolver apart and clean it. I could close my eyes and see the gun and the cleaning supplies laid out on a cloth on the cedar table down on the terrace that looked out over the creek. I remember the cylinder released and empty and the way the metal looked wet with the oil. I remember Daddy’s face. He never took his eyes off the gun. I remember how slowly his hands moved. I thought he was touching everything so lightly that he couldn’t possibly be getting the gun very clean. Every once in a while, he would reach over, without looking up, and pat my arm or brush a hand across my hair. I remember that I felt entirely loved.
Today I gathered all my photographs of the handsome stranger, the photographs for which I have never been able to muster the slightest emotion. I laid them all out together, side-by-side, and I noticed something wonderful. In many of them, my father is in the same squatting or crouching position. With the photographs together like this, I see it in the picture in the snow when I was three, and when we are planting the sapling. I see it again in a beautiful photograph of Daddy with our Irish Setter, Joe.
I understand it is not a position assumed for convenience. It is something else altogether. His knees are bent, always at the same angle, and he is tilted just slightly back on his haunches. The balance is perfect. He looks as if he could stay there, comfortably, all day. He is at home in his body, and whether he is fishing, or cleaning his gun, or holding his small daughter, his concentration is absolute. From many years of yoga and meditation, I know that concentration and am familiar with that easy balance. In these photographs my father is the reflective, almost prayerful man I am beginning to remember. Perhaps I am more his daughter than I imagined.
Once I had decided to re-examine each photograph separately, I chose first the small image of Daddy holding me, age two or three, between his legs in the snow. I enlarged the photograph, and I got out my mother’s old magnifying glass. Under the hat that partially covers his face, the face that is leaning close to mine, I can see that my father is smiling.