When I chose the image for background on this new website, I didn’t intend to create A Mystery or A Topic of Conversation. I like the way it looks, it is relevant to my writing, and the scribbled out lines reminded me of the way editing used to look before computers.
People keep asking, and there is a story, so here goes. I have carried around with me for many decades a photograph of my grandmother and grandfather, taken when they got married. It is a typical formal portrait from the period, 1909. She was fifteen. He was a twenty-seven-year-old cavalry officer and a boarder in her home.
Late last year I started writing a novel about them. I didn’t know my grandfather, who died when I was two years old, but my grandmother was a constant presence in my life as I was. growing up. Because of their ages, and because of her attitudes about anything sexual when I knew her, I have always drawn the obvious conclusions. It seemed to be supported by what is on the back of that photograph.
I have spent a good deal of time working on that image–lightening it, tinting it differently, getting it into focus. In the handwriting I recognize as hers, my grandmother has recorded these facts:
“L.M. & Cornelia Robertson. February, 1909.
(I was sixteen years old preceding January 28th)”.
My grandparents were married in late February 1909.
My father’s birthday was November 2 1909.
Below this is more writing, but it is heavily scribbled out in the way someone does who really doesn’t want it to be legible. I have struggled on and off for years to read that, have made out a few words, but finally gave up on being able even to make a guess at what the whole inscription might be.
I found a man who restores old photographs and who had done wonders with the two I had sent him, and my hopes soared. I scanned this and sent it off. I know that he used every trick in his arsenal to pull the words up, but ultimately he had to tell me he couldn’t do it. He sent me a shot of his efforts, the few words he identified marked in red. I wasn’t at all sure the handwriting was the same.
Not too long ago, I had one of those moments when something flashes through your mind and is gone, but I suddenly felt absolutely sure that I had written and crossed out whatever is on that photograph. I still think that’s right. I have no idea what I might have written, but instinct tells me it about the horrors I imagine in my grandmother’s marriage at that age.
However, the mystery remains a. mystery and, in the meantime, I wrote this novel about the two of them.
The image is the story of my experience with the redeeming power. of writing and especially writing fiction. My novel didn’t turn out the way I thought it would. The characters surprised me on every page. I will almost certainly never know the facts about my grandmother’s early life and her marriage, but the writing of fiction has softened the edges around her life and has given me a grandmother who was a source of stability and great love during my childhood and not the terribly unhappy girl I have always been sure she was. Did I write the facts? I don’t know many facts about these two people.
But Kafka once wrote that a novel should be an axe fort he frozen sea within us. For me, this novel has been that axe. And so, the image.