categories: Cocktail Hour
A couple of years ago I called my dad to ask if he knew the whereabouts of any family photos or other memorabilia of my time playing in bands. I particularly wanted a photo of equipment set up in the big room over our garage, which we called the Hideaway, and where my friends and I rocked out. He said, Oh, I’ve got photos all right. The older of my two younger sisters, Carol, had boxed them all when Poppy moved down to Atlanta to live with my younger brother, Doug, and his family. And, well, they were still in the boxes.
Which arrived three days later via Fedex ground–seven large U-Haul cartons taped shut at the end of 2006, beginning of 2007. These I put in the barn, but today cleaning up a little I spied them (very close to blending in to the permanent warp and woof of barn stuff). And for no particular reason dragged one inside and slit the tape and inside a bursting cornucopia of forgotten faces and beloved ones, mostly my mother’s side of the family, and mostly theForsyth clan, her mother’s crowd. Gradually I realized that the collection was from my mother’s aunt Pearl, her favorite aunt and middle-name sake (my daughter’s, too: Elysia Pearl). Aunt Pearl had written names on many photos, but many were unmarked. My grandparents I recognized–this pair of people born in 1887 and 1890 respectively. Grandfather is serious in every photo, Grandmother a touch less so. Their eight children arrive one-by-one, my mother near the end of the line-up.
Robert, her immediate senior, died at age 5, polio. Our beloved angel, his mother writes on the back of one photo. I recognize my other uncles’ faces, but not this one. And there are many shots of my mother. Perhaps Aunt Pearl organized these photos, sent selected shots to the right Burkhardt households before her death. Anyway, photos, photos: Mom at 15 years old, Mom and Dad arm in arm age 16 or so, going steady. And then, a photo I’ve never seen, the two of them at their wedding, Dad in his navy uniform, her siblings flanking, both sets of parents dour at the two far ends of the tableau. My future folks are 19 and look it, cheerful and resolute, a bit stunned.
It was my job to go through all these boxes and try to divide things a little. I get out a stack of large envelopes and label them sibling by sibling and cousin by cousin (I have 36 first cousins, all on Mom’s side–I pick just one per family). My two uncles, Bill and Carl, my Aunt Connie, and my mother (Reba Elaine Pearl Burkhardt) had all died in the previous four years. Photos of each of them, photos of all of them, photos of their living siblings, women in their 80s and 90s now. Photos of the living, photos of the dead. I tuck images of Uncle Bill into an envelope for cousin Lindy. I tuck Uncle Carl into an envelope for cousin June. Who knew how carefree and how good-looking and how gangly these people used to be!
In a stationery box, Robert’s baby book, all carefully filled out, beloved boy. It’s kept as a journal in the Victorian style, rather stiff until late in the pages, which include a description in my Grandmother’s hand of his last words: a prayer, which she spells out complete, blue fountain pen, on the page titled “Baby’s First Prayer,” an addendum to the old book of hopes she must have pulled out for comfort, a thought continued from somewhere else: “Later he wanted a different prayer from sister Reba Pearl’s so he used ‘Dear God we thank thee for this day, for home, and work and play, for loving care, and everything in Jesus’ name, Amen.’ He repeated this in gasps before his dear little soul left us.”
Me and Bobby McGee, my mother used to sing. Me and Bobby, me and Bobby McGee.
One day singing it with her late in her life it occurred to me why this unlikely Janis Joplin hit would become her favorite song, why she sang it out at the top of her lungs, why she awakened us with it all through high school, full blast on the console hi-fi. And why the 45 version was on our little pink record player in my sister’s old room when I went to help clean the Connecticut house out before Dad’s move.
Me and Bobby, Me and Bobby McGee.
After dinner that summer’s night, having embarked on this project by accident, I opened a second box, this one containing Roorbach family photos, lots of laughs, lots of sitting there on the couch trying to figure out who was who, which baby which, which haircut when, lots of tossing photos into labeled envelopes: Randy, Bill, Carol, Doug, Janet.
When the box was empty and sorted I went to the old computer to work on whatever was at hand, the novel, no doubt. And saw at the bottom of my Mac screen the little calendar with the date: July 17, of course. Which happens to be my mother’s birthday. Or was. Or always will be, however these things work. [Originally posted July 17, 2010]