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Memory Lines

I am on a new journey, tracing a part of me that seems to have begun much earlier than I had previously thought.  I am tracing lines that run in the blood, lines that transfer passions and dreams, stretching straight and true through generations, carried along by memory.  For now, I believe I know where they began.  How far into the future will they go?

There are certain moments in life that stop you in your tracks.  Finding my Grandfather’s wallet in a box of family papers was one of those for me.  My uncle contacted me about becoming the keeper of the family archives, a role I gladly accepted, and it was while we were sorting through the contents that this item surfaced.  Standing there, the boxes laid out on the dining room table I inherited upon my Grandmother’s move to assisted living, surrounded by the voices of my aunt and uncle - voices that took me back years the moment they arrived - there it was.  Grandpa’s wallet.  Carefully preserved, as if he had just set it down the other day. . . . well, except for the very outdated style of the driver’s licence, which was an instant giveaway to how much time had passed since last this good piece of leather sat in his pocket.  Outdated tho it was, however, the look of that license transported me to the first decade of my life.  It’s funny how memory can appear out of nowhere and take your breath away; I was so shocked that I couldn’t really process it until later that evening, when I found myself in tears at the kitchen sink.

Looking through a family photo album brings questions.  Fortunately, the photographs are well labeled with names and places.  But I look at it now with new eyes:  photographer eyes. These are not the typical snapshots that usually adorn family albums.  These are well composed, carefully thought out, artistic photographs.  Who was the one behind the camera?  Who made them?  According to my father, my maternal great-grandfather was the one photographing in the Cotter family, but he isn’t certain whether it was his father or mother who made the ones of him and his brothers when he was a boy.  I have a feeling it was my grandmother; they have the look of a woman’s eye, and by her own account she was often on her own with the three boys while my grandfather was at work. Could it be that her father, Grandpa Cotter, was the origin of our family passion?  It’s almost too late to ask now.  Grandma, at 98, is unlikely to remember. 

Family photo album; my father, uncles, and grandfather 

Family photo album; my father, uncles, and grandfather 

My father’s inspection of the negatives leads me further to believe it was Grandma who did the picture making.  Also, his own father’s daily commute to work and back in Chicago was a staggering two hours each way.  In the summers, he would drive his family to the Jasek land on a lake in Wisconsin for three months, to give my grandmother relief from the hayfever that plagued her so badly in Illinois. He would only visit a couple of times before he returned to bring them home. Their move to Texas in 1953 heralded a whole new world of easier living for everybody.  It also brought about the time that my dad inherited his mother’s Kodak Brownie, a camera he still has today and used for the start of his cave photography.

My Father's first photograph with the Brownie camera, in the aftermath of the 1953 Waco Tornado.  He was 11 years old at the time.

My Father's first photograph with the Brownie camera, in the aftermath of the 1953 Waco Tornado.  He was 11 years old at the time.

My Grandmother, by my Father, with the Brownie camera; Galveston 1955 (that's my uncle in the background)

My Grandmother, by my Father, with the Brownie camera; Galveston 1955 (that's my uncle in the background)

It all makes sense to me now.  Grandma *always* had a camera on her when I was growing up. She loved picking up photos from the lab and showing them to me.  It's an enormous piece of knowledge for me, suddenly understanding where it all began.  Grandpa Cotter was born in the late 1800’s.  Were his own parents photographers?  My dad remembers him developing his own film from his Kodak folding camera.  

A photograph of my Grandmother and three of her sisters

A photograph of my Grandmother and three of her sisters

I love thinking about this.  The only thing I know about my great-grandfather is that my Grandma (far right in the photo above) "never saw him without a tie.  He came home from work, took of his suit jacket, and put on a smoking jacket."  I wonder:  did he also wear it in the darkroom?