When the Memory and the Photograph Don't Match

Updated: Jun 10, 2019

It is cool, dark, and damp this November morning. Leaves are steadily falling outside my windows. The cat perched on my desk intently watches oaks, maples, and dogwoods willingly shed the pieces of themselves that can’t survive the cold, left only with their toughest parts— trunk, branches, and roots—to make it through the winter.

In front of me is a black and white photo with white wavy-edged borders that I found of my mother’s family. The picture, in a plastic cover, was tucked away in a floral-covered hat box. I asked my mom what she knew about this photo. She replied, “I remember everything about that day. I had strep throat and it was the first Thanksgiving after my father died. I was 12 years old.”

My grandfather died at only 49 from a stroke. He sold insurance to support his wife and six children, but they were always struggling financially because my grandfather would often pay his client’s premiums out of his own pocket to keep even poorer families from losing their insurance. He carried a lemon or orange in his pocket because he was sensitive to bad smells. In general, he was a sensitive person. My mother said that he would go hunting only to watch the deer and squirrels at play. He couldn’t bear to actually kill them. I saw this trait in my own son, who instead of being excited about his first deer kill said, “I am never hunting again.”

In the picture are seven people sitting with their heads bowed around a rectangular lace-covered table. There is an empty chair in the bottom right corner. My mom said that her brother, Larry, was sitting in the chair, but he stood up to take the photograph. It was 1954 and my Uncle Larry wanted to capture this moment of grace on Thanksgiving Day in the little house with the floral wallpaper on Evans Street.

Tall glasses of ice tea dot the table with one green bottle of 7 up at my mom’s plate. Perhaps to soothe the strep throat. The center of the table is full of dishes, including sweet potatoes with marshmallows on top, homemade biscuits, and ham with pineapple. The family is eating from mismatched china. The guys are dressed in button-down shirts and the women or girls are wearing dresses, except my young mother who is in a bathrobe.

I imagine how hard this meal would have been for the family. He was only 49 years old when he died. There were still three children under 15 living at home. This event forever changed and molded the life of my mother. My grandmother never dated or remarried.

I pull the picture from the plastic cover and turn it over looking for more clues. It is stamped on the back: DEC 1952. Dec 1952? My grandfather died in July of 1954! It wasn’t the Thanksgiving after my grandfather died, but rather Christmas two years earlier. My mother was only 10 years old, but apparently she was sick on this holiday as well, based on the bathrobe and the 7 up. I had already written all but this last paragraph when I realized the mistake.

My 15 year old son said I should still include this blog as an example of faulty memory. The reality is that as you try to faithfully tell the story of your family using first-hand accounts, even when delivered confidently as in the case of my mom and her words, “I remember everything about that day . . .” sometimes the information will be faulty. Perhaps my mom saw the photograph without her father and was instantly taken back to the most traumatic event that occurred around that table. She probably does remember everything about that Thanksgiving after her father died, so much so that it colors everything she sees, even in a black and white photo.

In the end, absolute truth is not what matters to me. The fact is that before the death of Raymond Crocker, the family had gathered around the table, said grace, and celebrated holidays with home-cooked meals and ice tea. In November, two years later, they will do the same, but like the trees, only the toughest parts remained.

~Kim Winslow

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