Monday, April 12, 2004

I was sitting in my Grandma's living room Saturday holding a tattered, eighty-six year old photograph. The photo was held together with a piece of tape and shoved in a simple, clear plastic frame. It showed a man and a woman with a baby between them. Someone had taken a ballpoint pen and written, Charles on the man's chest, Gertrude on the baby's gown and Amanda beneath the woman's face.

Grandma told me, "Dad had just got a new overcoat and wanted to wear it for the picture." There really wasn't a need to explain why Charles was wearing his coat in the photo. It didn't look unusual to me. I have a feeling Grandma has heard this bit of trivia told to just about everyone who has seen this photo over the years. I'm sure Grandma offered the explanation to me out of habit. After all, she is the baby in photo so I wouldn't expect her to have any memory of what happened that day, eighty six years ago.

The picture is evidence that my Grandma was a beautiful baby back in 1918. It's no surprise why Charles and Amanda chose to bring her home from the orphanage. Although, I'm told, it was Charles who immediately fell in love with Violet. Violet was Grandma's name before she was adopted. Charles and Amanda decided to call her Gertrude. I looked at my Grandma when she told me this and in my head I said, "Hello, Violet."

Surprisingly it fit. Grandma named for a beautiful flower seemed just as appropriate as Gertrude (I looked it up and it means spear of strength). And, as far as I am concerned, Grandma is really the only name she'll ever need. But I would never presume to argue this point with Charles, Amanda and everyone else who knows and loves Gertrude. So my first, Hello, Violet, will be my last.

Charles was a laborer for the Wabash Railroad and Amanda was a school teacher. Grandma tells me Charles spent most of his time washing the big train engines that would roll into the rail yard. I looked at his face in the pictures. I was somehow disappointed by his lack of resemblance to anyone in our family. An odd thought that seems petty and ungrateful. How could I be disappointed that a man who chose to love and care for my mother's mother didn't have eyes shaped like mine?

Amanda looked young and vital in the picture. I had a difficult time reconciling this with the image my mom has implanted in my head of Amanda as an older, stern woman who lost a leg to diabetes. Grandma talked about the day Amanda died. I kept looking down at Amanda as Grandma told me about the day she lost her mother. My brain was swirling together an overwhelming sense of mortality with images of everyone I care about and I kind of wanted Grandma to shut up.

She did.

I could see it was far more difficult for Grandma to talk about that day than it was for me to hear about it. But I was grateful she spoke about it with me. It's what I couldn't stop thinking about at 2:40 a.m. on Easter Sunday. That and the eighty-six year old picture of a train washer in his new overcoat with his beautiful wife and his new baby girl.

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