One day when I was maybe 8 or 9, my grandmother Ethel brought out a box of old photographs and we went through them together. I don’t recall if she did this at my request, or if there was some other reason she took them out. I also don’t have memories of any specific photographs – except for one. It was a picture of her brother William who had died before she was born. For years, I remembered the picture as a little boy sitting on a chair, perhaps with a book, and wearing a cowboy hat, and after my grandparents died and we inherited their photographs, wondered where that photograph of William in his cowboy hat could be.
When I found the photograph in a box of pictures my aunt had discovered in her house, I realized that my memory of the photograph was incorrect – there wasn’t a cowboy hat or a book, nor was it stored in a shiny red box from a department store, as I expected it to be. But thing that must have affected me enough as a child that I remembered this one and only photograph is still there – the smiling face of a happy little boy whose realness seems almost physically palpable more than 90 years after his photograph was taken, probably just months before he died.
I have written before about the fascination that I have with baby pictures of my relatives from long ago – about how there is something almost uncanny in seeing their faces grown small, how something about baby and toddlerhood distills our faces down to the essential familial characteristics, so that a baby picture of my grandfather might not resemble the grandfather I know so much as it reminds me of baby pictures of myself. This phenomenon is precisely why I find this picture of William so very affecting – as much if not more now than when I was 8. It’s because William looks like me, like my sister and brother, like my mom, like a baby that I know. He is at once completely familiar, completely one of us – while at the same time a person we don’t know, a child we never played with. Looking at his picture, I project my own feelings onto him, imagining what it would have been like to lose one of those children I played with, one of the babies I used to take care of, and it makes me unbearably sad.
William died aged 3 years, 5 months and 24 days (according to his obituary) from a case of typhoid fever that brought on meningitis, illness so severe that beating it would have been a miracle. After he died, his mother Anna apparently went into a kind of tailspin, becoming reclusive and constantly ill, overprotective and sad. About the effect William’s death had on his father, Max, or his 10 year old brother Arthur, we can only speculate.
When my grandmother was born 2 years later, she lived a childhood haunted by her mother’s memory of William. Besides the neuroses for safety that governed Ethel’s life, Anna’s anxiety about losing another child was manifested in another way: photographs. From the age of just a few months through toddlerhood, my grandmother’s growth was documented quite regularly in professional studio portraits so that if something were to happen to her, Anna would have multitudes of pictures to remember her by. In them, she looks a lot like William.