The box that contained my grandmother’s only remaining photos was a soggy, brown heap that smelled of mold. My eyes couldn’t believe that what I had searched for all these years , the one thing that never turned up whenever I searched my parent’s house, lay rotting in a box in the garage.
I pulled the familiar red book out of the muck and began turning the pages. My gut felt like it had been socked by a prize fighter. Where there had once been my grandmother’s lovely face, there was nothing but a smudge of ink. The lovely scalloped edges of the photos were now curled. My sister and I had stumbled upon this discovery by chance and promised each other we would not tell our father. It would certainly break his heart.
When we were little Dad used to talk about his childhood all the time. The stories were always about his neighborhood in Northeast Rochester, his Beagle Patches, or our grandmother, Ethel. She died years before we were born– her life cut short by diabetes. She was a mythical character who only materialized when we would thumb through Dad’s prized photo album.
Dad is of mixed raced. Ethel was Black. Our grandfather, who was never part of Dad’s life, was White. Through the years I found myself staring at her photos more and more as I struggled with my own identity. Was I Black? Was I White? In Ethel’s face I found the courage to be myself.
I took heart from her story. She never made excuses about who she was or her choices. She birthed a son whose existence was kept a secret. She left Mississippi alone and raised him alone.
Her album is being repaired and the photos, the precious few that could be salvaged, are being restored. I believe the most painful of pasts can teach us something positive about our lives today. In many ways, my father’s story is the story of so many people in the South. It’s buried, though. Like Dad’s photo album, the stories lay rotting beneath the years of shame and regret. I feel haunted by my grandmother. I believe it took losing her album for me to find her– and me–again. Her face and her story deserve a place in the light.
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