Mom keeps a wicker basket filled with photographs in her bedroom upstairs. When she’s on the phone and I’m bored, I can spend hours rifling through the contents of each envelope, investigating the past and studying the details of each situation and event. I scrutinize multiple copies of the same exact picture with only the slightest variations. Countless weddings, baptisms and other sacraments, my dad and uncles in an array of standard military uniforms. My sister, Judy and I, taking turns on a tricycle. I hold thin strips of negatives up to the light, hoping for secrets not yet revealed.
I can’t help being drawn to that frayed black and white print of my father as a teenager. The one where he’s pointing a rifle at an older man’s head. I don’t recognize this other person. Mom says it was Daddy’s favorite uncle. That he’s dead now, but not because my father killed him. It’s hard to imagine Daddy having a favorite anything.
There’s also that photo of Dad and Aunt Joan on New Year’s Eve. They’re propped up next to each other at a party, in front of the little white Christmas tree on top of the TV set in my parents’ living room. A hand is pushing their heads together so they kiss. I can tell just by looking at my father’s face, he is drunk. I hate this picture. How could my mother let her sister act like that?
Mom swears there’s nothing to worry about. “Honey, there isn’t another woman in this world stupid enough to put up with your father’s bullshit. I couldn’t give him away if I tried.” I fold the photo in half and bury it beneath the others.
I search for three nearly identical snapshots of my cousins, Michael Kevin, Jeanne Marie and Dennis, taken a few years before I was born. Toddlers of varying ages, dressed only in undershirts and cloth diapers, loosely supervised on the roof of the apartment building in Manhattan where our families lived. Where our mothers hung laundry, smoked and gossiped while the men were at work. After supper, they all returned to the roof to relax and enjoy a few too many beers. Wearing sunglasses and holding cans of Schaefer, each of my cousins smile for the camera, as if they’re already in on the joke.
I brought the picture of Jeanne Marie to school one time last year. I showed it to all my friends in the fourth grade schoolyard and told them it was me.
The last photograph is the worst, but I find myself staring at it the longest. It’s from last summer. I’m sitting cross-legged on a towel at low tide in Edgewater Park. We’re visiting my cousins at their house on the Bronx side of the Long Island Sound. I’m dressed in a yellow and white bathing suit that no longer fits me. I insist on wearing it because I want this place to be the beach, but it’s not. There’s sand, yes. Sort of. It’s more a combination of crushed bricks and mud.
Shattered beer bottles, garbage and the occasional dead fish litter the shore. Empty, dark blue mussel shells slice into the bottoms of my feet. Ropes of seaweed wrap around my legs when I’m in the water. I get scared and scream. The other kids tease me because I can’t swim. They sing the “Baby, Baby, Stick Your Head In Gravy” song.
All the grown-ups, except my mother, are drunk. She’s angry with my father because he went up the road with some of the other men and hasn’t come back yet. He always ruins everything.
In this awful picture, I’m eating a hamburger. There’s ketchup on my cheek and chin, a can of Shasta soda between my legs. My pale, white belly flops over my bikini bloomers. I’m getting fat, and I don’t know how to stop it. I can’t imagine why anyone would take this photo. It looks like I’m about to cry.
Today is the day I separate this memory from the others in the pile. I tear it into small pieces and those pieces into tiny ones. I flush them all down the toilet and try to pretend I’m someone else.