“I’ve been looking so long at these pictures of you/that I almost believe that they’re real/I’ve been living so long with my pictures of you/that I almost believe that the pictures are all I can feel”
The Cure, Pictures of You
I have a picture of my father and I together. I used to think it was the only picture of us in existence. Now I know there are several. Although I don’t remember the event that this picture records, I can put the pieces of the story together. I recognize the setting now as Salem Willows, the fair that my father’s family visits every summer. I see the ocean in the background, the white benches along the boardwalk, the weeping willows the fairground is named for, and I remember the summers I spent there in later years with my cousins, long after my father had died.
The picture was taken before cameras could date their photographs, so I can only guess that I was 2 or 3 at the time. I’m sitting in a green and white lawn chair that dwarfs my tiny body, wearing an expression of amusement and surprise, as if I have just heard a good joke. My father is squatting behind me, looking down at my face with a similar expression of delight. He’s wearing a silver bracelet on his left wrist, not unlike a bracelet that I now wear on mine, and a pair of glasses with gigantic amber brown frames and dark lenses that hide his eyes.
On the fourth finger of his left hand is a slim, gold wedding band, and I realize that by this point, my father must have been married to his wife, Karen, the woman I’m told he left my mother for.
My father’s relatives have always commented on how much I look like him, and based on pictures of him, I had to agree. But looking at the two of us in this picture, placed literally side by side, our similarities are striking. In fact, it looks as if I am a miniature, lighter-skinned, female version of my father. Even our positions are nearly symmetrical, our bodies turned toward one another, my eyes looking out into the distance while his eyes look warmly down at me. He has cocoa brown skin and a dark, well-groomed afro. My skin is caramel to his cocoa, my hair a more loosely coiled honey brown.
In this picture, it looks as though my father and I are old friends, reveling in some sort of inside joke, remembering the good old days. But of course, my father and I were not old friends, and there were few, if any, good old days to remember. I probably regarded him as little more than a handsome stranger.
I look more deeply into the picture, trying to pick up objects I might have missed, hoping that if I stare at it long enough, the actual event will begin to come back to me and I will be able to recall the things I see here from memory rather than sight. I want something more than the glossy photo in front of me to remember my father by. I want something that moves. And then, I want nothing more than exactly what I see. Because although this picture feels incomplete, it also feels completely perfect. Our relationship has been mired in mystery and complexity, and this picture is straightforward, simple. There is everything to infer, and yet there is nothing to infer at all.
Looking at this picture, you might never know that we never knew each other. We look like a happy father and daughter, bound not just by DNA but by manner and personality.
Looking at this picture, there’s no evidence of rape or knifings or months spent in the hole with a urine-stained mattress and a hard back against cold concrete. You wouldn’t know that he grew his final five inches behind bars. You wouldn’t see the crime, the trial, the sentence, you’d never see the melancholy shadow that sweeps down over my grandfather’s face when he talks about my father, the way his eyes immediately fall toward the ground, you wouldn’t see my grandmother as I saw her, rigid in her wheelchair ever since her oldest son was taken away, purple lipstick slightly smudged because her husband had to apply it.
You wouldn’t see that pain. You’d only see a father and daughter, sitting comfortably along the coastline at Salem Willow’s, enjoying the slow passage of a warm summer’s day.
I have a small album with all of my favorite photos in it. One day, while flipping through its pages, I see a picture in which I’m staring pensively at my birthday cake, and it reminds me of an image of my father that I had been looking at just a few minutes before. Flipping back to that picture of my father, I take it out of its plastic sleeve and place it next to the one of me. The two are eerily similar. I wonder what it means.
In the picture on the left, I am, based on the number of candles on my cake, turning 7 or 8. My cousin Tiffany is there too, giggling at my mother’s unsuccessful attempts to get all of the candles lit. My sister is standing next to me, wearing a bib and peering unexcitedly at the cake, apparently exasperated by my mother’s flaming-candle juggling act and desperate to get to the good stuff — the eating. I’m looking down, perhaps contemplating the responsibilities that come along with turning “7 or 8,” perhaps wondering when we can get back outside and finish our game of tag.
Now, the half of the picture with the cake, my sister, my cousin and my mother is hidden as I slide my father’s picture above it, folding it carefully so that his face is directly next to mine. In his picture, he was apparently walking into his apartment, looking towards a door that is now hidden by the crease I have folded in the picture. What I see now is a father and daughter, heads cocked at nearly identical angles in each other’s direction, with nearly identical expressions of quiet thoughtfulness on their faces.
I know that this is silly. I know that there is nothing there, in between the passage of time. I know that I’m searching for connections that don’t exist. I know that although the pictures touch each other, the people never will. I know that rather than discover some hidden bond, I’ve only folded creases in two photographs to make them appear to be one. I know that when this picture of my father was taken, I hadn’t been born yet, and when this picture of me was taken, he had already died. I know that these pictures relate to each other, like my father and I, only because I have forced them to.
And yet, when I look at these two pictures, it is impossible to deny that there is something strangely similar about our two expressions, our two positions. They are like mirror images captured years apart. Perhaps I have forced the similarity to be noticed. But I haven’t forced the similarity to exist. It just does.
I don’t know what that means. But I know it means something.