Getting Rid of Some Things
In the politically hot summer of 1968, I disowned my father.
I walked out of my parents’ house where the thick draperies smelled of bacon grease and ashtrays stuffed with Camel cigarette butts. I walked as fast as I could, past the screened porch, the brown, shriveled azaleas, and onto the cracked sidewalk. George, my father, was right behind me. He wanted to carry my heavy suitcase, but I wouldn't let him touch it, and I certainly wouldn’t let him touch me.
This all began the previous afternoon, during what George called Cocktail Hour, a daily ritual, which involved neither cocktails nor a sixty-minute social occasion. Every day, at five o’clock or earlier, depending on his mood, George carried a glass into his bedroom closet. There, above his collection of pastel Banlon shirts, wash-and-wear slacks and rarely-worn jackets, a high shelf supports a limited but well-stocked bar. George stood on tip-toe to grasp a bottle of Jack Daniels. He poured his drink, twisted the cap back on the bottle and reached up to push the bottle out of sight, as if his pastor might make a surprise sobriety inspection.
That afternoon, before disappearing into the bedroom, he asked me, “Wanta little drink?” I sat in the living room alone, wondering when my mother, Margaret, would come back inside. She had quit drinking by then. No questions asked. No reasons given. During Cocktail Hour she often went into the back yard, picked sucker bugs off her struggling tomato plants, or wiped pine tree resin off the old picnic bench. The yard’s many mockingbirds and blue jays were her enemy; she hated the cacophony of their squawking. Even though it had never caused one bird to fly away, she kept flapping her apron, and hissing shoo, shoo.
Somehow that smoky brown liquid, the charred aroma matched my mood. For the last three days I had listened in silence to his bigoted ranting. Maybe tossing back a shot of bourbon would give me courage. “Sure ” I said. George returned from his bedroom bar and placed a stout glass on the coffee table. I took one sip. My esophagus burned like fire.
“We’re getting rid of some things,” he said, a topic that sounded manageable, nothing he could blame on Lyndon Johnson. “Should’ve done more of that when we moved here. Margaret says just call the Salvation Army, stack stuff on the porch for them to pick up, but I thought you might want to rummage around. See if you want anything.”
I was sure I didn’t. Except perhaps the crewel-embroidered rocking chair which belonged to Margaret’s mother, or the almost identical chair that was my paternal grandmother’s. They were the largest pieces of furniture in the crowded room, frequently dusted and polished but rarely used. I sank down into the floral sofa cushions as George leaned over me.
“You’d be amazed what’s in the attic,” he said. “I’ve even kept my portable darkroom. Probably we could find some developing chemicals and you could teach the kids photography.”
My children were ages four and two.
I remembered the free-standing wooden box he bragged about building. I remembered him warning me not to open the door when he was working inside. “How would I get it home?” I said.
“Aw, the airlines can do anything. We’ll take it to the airport and just tell them to put it in the back.”
“I really don’t see…’
“Come on. Let’s take a look. No one makes a darkroom like that more.”
A few sips of bourbon had made me dizzy. I did not want to go to the attic.
He wobbled toward the center hallway where he struggled to pull down the attic stairs, cursing under his breath, until he finally let me help. I followed him, warily, my feet slipping off the narrow treads. The attic smelled of saw dust. Hanging around the walls were poisonous sticky papers, once bright yellow, now black with long-dead insects. He switched on a hanging bulb which created a surprising amount of light. Among the cardboard boxes stacked everywhere, standing like a sentinel, was the six-foot-high wooden darkroom. George tried and failed to open the door, last shut so long ago, and when he tried to tip the box, he hadn’t the strength. In that moment I imagined how he felt about his age, and what old pleasures he had lost.
“Are your photos here?” I asked. This was risky as I might have to endure a long session viewing black-and-whites of “old folks.”
“Just negatives, mostly,” he said. This came out as “moashly.” Bourbon worked fast on a small man. “I keep the negs of all my prize winners. I made money from those. There’s a few prints up here too.”
I was sweltering in the attic heat and he was so close to me, so reeking of booze, I could hardly breathe. “Let’s just go back. Dinner must be about ready.”
He reached behind a stack of cardboard boxes and quickly pulled out an album I had never seen. “Get closer to the light,” he said. I sat on top of a leather trunk and he placed the album on my lap. It was brown leather and unlike his other albums, it had no title stamped on the spine. I opened the book to see page after page of stunning, artful photographs: Alabama’s country churches, children’s portraits, pastoral scenes as good as any National Geographic shot. This was outstanding creative work. And I said so.
“Well, baby,” he said, “You’re got the ‘eye.’ Gonna make a photographer out of you.”
Tucked behind the last page of the album was a manila file which he did not stop me from opening. The photo on top was that early shot taken of George proudly posing with his Pentax in his go-to-meetin’ suit. That young Christian man was now the old man standing silently as I pulled out the next photograph. The one he nor Margaret ever threw away. The photograph I still have today.
On the right side of the frame is a gnarly tree. The tree has no leaves on the two visible branches. The branches are small, as if they would break in one of Alabama’s torrential storms. But one branch is not weak, it is strong enough to hold a cord around the neck of a young black man. The dreadful cord has been girdled around the tree trunk, then wrapped around the strong branch and now, for all goddamn eternity, you can see, in this prize-winning photograph, how that cord jerked to one side the man’s head, how it cut off his wind pipe while he struggled to breathe until that despicable cord broke the young man’s neck. The photographer took great pains in his darkroom to achieve such a finely detailed photo. You can see the seams in the young man’s overalls, the smooth cotton of his long-sleeved shirt. Amazingly, his brow is not furrowed and his mouth is not open in a silent scream. Perhaps that image would have been too disturbing for the photographer. Perhaps he would have had to remove his pointed white mask to get a better angle, to see the humanity of the young black man.
Years later, at Cincinnati’s Freedom Museum, I will view a traveling collection of photographs entitled, “The Hanging Trees.” I will look for my father’s photograph, but will not see his “prize” in any of the galleries. I spent hours, dreading what I might find on wall after wall displaying photographs of black men being burned alive, hung upside down, tortured in unspeakable ways. The onlookers—men certainly, but also women in long white lacy skirts--appeared to be enjoying themselves, as if behind them, there were wicker baskets waiting with lemon chiffon cake and pimiento cheese sandwiches cut in little triangles.
About the author:
Peggy Barnes received her MFA from Bennington College. Her award-winning work has been published in literary journals and provided scholarships to major writers’ conferences. This story is an excerpt from, I Knew You by Name: The Search for My Lost Mother, a memoir to be released in Spring, 2015.