There is a box in the upstairs office of my house full of photographs from 1900 to 1919, and almost all of them are of you.
They’re yellowed and greened, slowly thumbed and tattered and battered into shadow and light. They have been well-loved, ill-preserved, remembered too often, not remembered at all. Look there – someone scraped out your face.
I have a question about that. Who was it? And why? And is that your child, the one you’re holding in the wind with the white dress at the prow of the boat? Your husband, was he really an aviator, or did he just hang around planes a lot? Who is that blurred next to you by the San Francisco Bay? And who went back, years later, and marked you in each group photo with an X, a graphite kiss on a forehead or a knee?
Once, in Tacoma, you and your friends climbed to the top of a hill in spring to take photos of each other for no reason. You held parasols and wore your mother’s pearls. The wind was so strong that day that I feel it even now, looking at you. You are off center and blurry, squinting in the face of the sun.
I’ve seen you so much, pushing against the bay’s currents, half-hidden by the botanical gardens, smiling in the shadow of Alcatraz. I’ve seen what people said to you, the cabaret singers and their sprawling Brooklyn autographs. You’re a good kid and a tease and a wonderful girl. I know your name. Sometimes, when I think about a daughter I could have, I think about giving her your name. If I did, would you feel it? Trapped on that windy hilltop, would you know?
And would you love me. (That is not a question made for question marks.) Someone watched you leaning on your hand in the tall grass, and they scribbled out your face anyway; there must have been a reason. In spite of it, would you love me. I think about this so much, too often: that we come to each other, descendant-ancestor-strangers, and we lay down what we’ve done on the rocks by the blurry shore, and the people who have hurt us match up, and the wrongs we have done are mirror images. I believe this because it is convenient, convenient to think that history and family move like interlocking wheels. Whatever mistakes you made, I want to make them. That would be safer than making my own. It is so convenient to want to meet you, some windy spring, and to know at last who you are.
I’ll confess this to you, only to you: at my guiltiest, I want my life in photographs. I want it thumbed-over and annotated, out of my control. I want my children and my children’s children to hold me, ask Who is that? Was that? And why? I want the blame lifted from me in the form of black construction paper and chalk, their hands all over my face. I want it to be easy. I want to be old. I want to be looked at with the kind of looking where only one person opens their eyes. So we can still claim we saw each other. So we can still forgive each other for living the way we do.