They were in a box. I’ve no idea how long they’d been there, but I’d estimate at least two house moves. They were items that, at a point in time, were deemed essential enough to pack but surplus to requirements when it came to unpacking. Say what you will about lockdown, but it certainly throws a spotlight on every little chore you’ve been putting off for the past decade or two. It was time to unpack the box.
There were pictures in frames that varied widely in both quality and importance. One was of my great, great grandfather taken around the turn to the last century. As photos go, it’s not especially flattering. Whilst he’s clearly dressed up for the occasion, his eyes are closed (it’s a family trademark) and although he’s remembered to bring his beard, his forgotten his moustache. The overall effect is one of ‘Amish garden gnome’.
It’s a point that needs to be made; this photo of my great, great grandfather is of him looking his absolute best. And yet he still looks as though he’s been dragged backwards through a hedge immediately before having been tossed in front of the camera. He looks about two hundred years old. According to the inscription on the back, he was about thirty when the picture was taken. Clearly, here was a man who’d lived a very hard life.
Indeed, so horrific is the picture it’s impossible not to wonder whether, in fact, it was taken post mortem. Although very few people in nineteenth century Ireland were that familiar with “Weekend At Bernie’s”, it looks as if my great, great grandfather has gone ‘the full Bernie’ in this photo. It looks like a Selfie from the afterworld. And despite the fact that my great, great grandfather was a ‘James’, my father has written on the back referring to him as ‘Spike’.
Here’s the thing: Spike is not my only relative. And yet it was Spike that my father decided to frame and give to me as a keepsake. The reasons for doing so remain as mysterious as Spike’s limp bowtie. It might be that my father thought it was funny (and, to be fair, it is) or as some kind of warning. As if to say this is what I, before long, could look like. If I’m being honest, in a certain kind of light there’s a passing resemblance. And by ‘passing resemblance’ I mean that if you were to notice a resemblance, you’d be guaranteed to pass by. Perhaps it’s a warning directed not at me but at those around me.
But that wasn’t the only photo in my box of clutter. There were framed photos of my two eldest nephews when they were still quite tiny. Of me, on my birthday, holding them both; the younger one wearing a ‘Dorothy the Dinosaur’ t-shirt and all of us looking happy down in Tyabb. Amazingly, each of us has our eyes open. They’re both young men in their twenties now. Too old to be wearing ‘Dorothy the Dinosaur’ t-shirts and certainly too big for me to be holding one in each arm. The sight of it took me to a different time.
Not all the photos were occupying the frames held such sentimental value. One picture frame contained a photo of Gary Coleman. If that name doesn’t ring a bell, you may remember him as ‘Arnold’ from the TV show ‘Diff’rent Strokes’. Not that I ever knew him. The picture was left over from a time many years ago when I was renting and the owners had elected to sell, meaning that strangers would be traipsing through my house on a regular basis. As a small but, I feel, potent protest, I replaced all the pictures with photos of celebrities, including Gary.
Gary looked over the living room as erstwhile strangers inspected. Whilst that was decades ago, I’d managed to take Gary with me from house to house ever since. Before you say ‘whatchoo talkin’ about, Stuart?’ I can only say that not everything we take forward is by design. Sometimes it simply works out that way.
There was a paining, too. Of a small bush shack in the middle of nowhere, painted by my grandfather back in the eighties. He was a creative guy, albeit not always entirely original. He had a shed behind the carport. It was an entire universe of tools and ephemera and carried a heavy scent of turpentine. It was clearly a special place. In that shed was a paining of a young woman with a headscarf and a pearl earring.
Even as a child, I thought this particular painting was quite striking and pretty good. It was only as an adult that I learned it was a copy of Johannes Vermeer’s famous work. In that shed, it didn’t really matter that it was someone else’s paining. Because in that shed if nowhere else, it belonged to my grandfather who had willed it into existence. Take that, Johannes!
These pictures are now in my living room. Mostly, they remind me of life as it was and, someday, will be again. As I look forward to meeting family again in this, the longest of years, it’s a timely reminder. That is, of course, except for Spike, whom I feel is watching my every move; which is quite the achievement when you’ve got your eyes closed.