Monday, November 3, 2014

If I could be a camera...

My great uncle Dave was the historian of the family, the record-keeper, the story teller. He was my maternal grandmother’s younger brother (There were a total of 8 siblings, I think-- at least those that lived past infancy). They were a big, Irish-Catholic family and you know Irish-Catholics are really good at making more Irish-Catholics, so there was a big, sprawling diaspora and Uncle Dave knew everyone, knew how one person connected to another. Knew where the Malloy branch of the family tree sprouted or how the Morgan’s were nearly pruned completely.

We have tons of family photos, too. Which I think might be unusual? The Nolans were not wealthy by any means. In fact, they were literally dirt poor. There are photos of my grandmother and her siblings as children—skin and bones and scabby knees. Posing for the camera while chickens scratched around in the dirt behind them. And those photos--turn over any one you’re were likely to see Uncle Dave’s script on the back. It might be brief and to the point, “Betty and Catherine, 1938” or it might be considerably more vague, bordering on mysterious. “Pinky and Mayday” is scribbled on the front of a photo of two men climbing on what look to be drainage pipes. Turn the photo over and the label –in the same handwriting-- reads “Whitey and Pinky.” Not sure why that guy merited two nicknames…But they were all labeled in some way.
Pinky and Whitey and Mayday and...

Catherine and Betty and some girl named "Florence". Poor thing.

I’m sure my uncle thought this was going to help future generations (i.e. me) understand and know the Nolan family history better. But the truth is, I really don’t. I mean, it’s not his fault and he’s certainly not the only person to believe that a few names and a couple of dates = historical record. Photos don’t tell the whole story, do they? They capture one tiny fraction of a moment in time, but that’s it. The story lies elsewhere.

When I first started looking through the photos—boxes of them had somehow found their way into my parents’ home, most likely as older relatives died and their houses were cleaned out—I was discouraged that I couldn’t really get a sense of who many of the subjects were. My mother didn’t have much more insight either, though she could fill in some blanks. It bothered me that so much history was lost. That my uncle, thinking he was recording information for posterity, really hadn’t done much for the next generation at all.

"Daddy, Money Nolan and Pat Kerns" on the back. Money. Someone's nickname was Money. Not bad.

Except now I realize just how much of a favor he’d done for me. If I knew everyone’s history, if I knew who Pinky and Mayday and Money were and where they sprouted on the family tree, I wouldn’t have anything to write about. If I knew why my grandmother and my Aunt Catherine were sitting on a rattan chair with another young girl named “Florence” in the middle of what appears to be some kind of empty lot in front of a chicken farm, well, my imagination could just take the night off, couldn’t it?

And that’s the key to it—at least for me. I get to make up the history that I don’t know. Yes, of course it’s sad that I don’t have every detail of who these people were and how they came to be in these photos. And sure, it’s selfish of me in a way to gleefully think that I can spin out a tale of who “Money Nolan” was. But all of this is great fodder for the “what if.” “What if” Money got her nickname because she was part of a famous gang of bank robbers during the Depression? What if she got the name because she was a wealthy benevolent benefactor who helped the family fight back against the mine bosses? What if she was a former showgirl in New York and that’s how she got her name? Who knows?  

And let’s face it, history, memory—none of it is every 100% truthful or accurate, either by chance or by design.  And in some ways, when I sit down and fill in the blanks that time has left for me, in some small way, I get to participate in that history, be a part of that life. And isn't that really what a writer is supposed to do anyway?

No comments:

Post a Comment