My Grandmother Bea surprised me by picking up the framed photograph from the oak table near the door. “It’s time I shared the story with you, John, if you want to hear it?” she asked, knowing my impatience to know was a decade in the making. “Have some tea with me while I tell you.” I wondered about that photograph at least a dozen times over the years. I called it the “Grandmother Mona Lisa” picture.
As I poured a ridiculous amount of honey into my teacup, Bea added the hot tea, using her prized teapot that resembled a rooster with its head craned.
“I was nineteen when this picture was taken. We lived in a little shotgun house no bigger than this living room. It was all heated by a single stove. We barely scraped by. My Uncle John, who you were probably named after, came by Saturday afternoon to give us a tableful of food. We were glad to have it. John worked at one of the mills, and he also loved cards. Though it killed my Dad to know it, John was good at gambling and often returned from his weekend trips to the Mississippi with cash. He always took time to share the wealth with us and a bit for the church up near Cypress. That church burned in 1961. On that Saturday, he came home with a camera. He won it playing cards. The photographer who foolishly played cards with him gave him to him instead of payment. He also showed John how to use it. It’s no small thing to know that your Uncle Thomas got his first guitar from Uncle John. And that guitar took him to Nashville. He also brought home three cars that way.”
Grandmother Bea was smiling in a way that I’d never seen before. She was joyously reaching back into the bygones, reliving the memories. She held up a finger and said, “Let’s celebrate a little.” She reached to the side of her sitting chair and pulled out a small bottle of whiskey. “You didn’t think I wasn’t able to have a little fun, did you?” She laughed. She poured a bit into her cup of tea and offered me some. I accepted it, shaking my head. Dad taught me that it was discourteous to decline a drink in someone else’s house.
“When Uncle John came to see us that day, he brought along a young man named Henry. Henry came back from the river to get a job at one of the mills. It wasn’t unusual for Uncle John to bring back recruits that he thought would be good workers. He was seldom wrong. I was sitting in the kitchen near the back window so I could catch a breeze. When Henry walked through and nodded his head as an introduction, he said, “Miss, pleased to meet you.” When his eyes met mine, I felt like I had been hit by a bolt of lightning. Henry’s brown eyes and dark hair consumed me. Uncle John walked in behind Henry. He must have seen the look on my face because he laughed. He said, “I remember being young!” Henry and Uncle John went to the backyard to sit in the shade with my Dad. After a few minutes, Mom asked me to take them tea. Even though my hands were shaking, I did. As I poured Henry a glass, his eyes met mine, and I almost dropped the glass. Dad asked me if I was alright. “Yes, sir.” Uncle John laughed and gave Dad one of those mischievous looks.
Grandmother Bea laughed, thinking about it. She gulped her tea and set the cup on the small table in front of us.
“Later, when we had sandwiches for an early supper, Henry and I walked along the dirt road that led to Cypress. I was a bit bashful and was tongue-tied. Henry seemed comfortable just walking and stealing an occasional glance at me. I was nineteen and had never done more than steal a quick peck on the lips. But I wanted to hug him like nobody’s business. When we got back to the house, Uncle John wanted to take our picture together, Henry and me. He kept teasing us. Mom told him it wouldn’t be proper, which seemed ridiculous even then. It was just a picture. So Uncle John had me sit by the front door in the fancy chair. Henry kneeled next to me, slightly out of frame. And right before Uncle Henry snapped the picture, Henry unexpectedly reached for my left hand and held it, his fingers encircling my wrist. You can’t see the blush on my face in the black and white photo, but I was flushed. Uncle John brought me the picture before Christmas, after. He told me it was the most beautiful picture he would ever take and that he would never forget how Henry and I looked at each other after the picture. It was then that I confessed to Uncle John what no one had known at the time: before Henry left with Uncle John that evening, Henry came back to me out on the porch, kneeled on one knee, and told me that he was coming back in two weeks to ask my Dad if he might be able to see me until he could earn enough to get married.”
Grandmother Bea took a sharp breath. I knew she was on the verge of being overwhelmed. I reached for her hand and held her delicate fingers as she continued. I knew whatever was coming was terrible and painted with tears.
“I wanted to tell Mom what Henry had said, but I didn’t want to break the spell. Sunday at church, all I could think about was imagining Henry and I standing at the front of the pews as we accepted our vows. It was young and foolish of me, I know. Monday, Henry started his new job at the mill. I knew he’d learn fast with Uncle John helping him. Wednesday afternoon, about 5:30, I heard a car pull up into the yard. I knew it was Uncle John. It was rare for him to visit during the week. He worked hard, and the hours sometimes wore him down. I looked out the front window and saw Dad walking up to meet Uncle John. After a minute of talking, Dad hugged Uncle John. That was a rare thing, even then. They walked around the house to sit under the big shade tree. Mom took them something to drink. When she came back inside, I couldn’t help but ask questions. “What happened, Mom? Did Uncle John get fired?” Mom looked at me strangely. “No. Nothing like that. The boy that he brought with him Saturday? Henry? He got killed this morning at the mill. A log came out of the sander and hit him in the head, killing him instantly.” I don’t remember much after that, only that I ran out of the house and along the dirt road, probably for a mile. Later, Uncle John’s car came up behind me as I shuffled along, my face covered in tears. He got out and hugged me, that I do remember. He held me as I cried. Eventually, he took me home. Mom didn’t ask me any questions. Uncle John likely told her not to.”
As I sat next to Grandmother Bea, I looked at the picture, taken at the happiest moment of her life, or at least the most bittersweet. Henry would have been my Grandfather except for circumstance.
Grandmother Bea spoke as her eyes pooled with tears. “When Uncle John gave me the picture at Christmas, it almost destroyed me. When I told him that Henry had proposed, he smiled and hugged me. “Y’all would have been spectacular, Bea! Don’t let that freeze up your life. Let time take your hand and lead you away from the pain. It just takes time.” He handed me the picture and told me I would have a great life. He was right. I have. But when my first child was born, I thought of Henry. When Uncle John died, it was Henry’s dark eyes that filled my mind. I don’t need a picture of him to know we would have been happy. You can’t see him in this picture, but his face was filled with a smile so large that I can’t bear to think about it. Now you know my story. I’m telling you the story because I know you will have a lot of heartache in your life. We all do. But if you find love, take it by the hand and smile in kindness and love. If you can do that, life will be a breeze.”
For a full minute, Grandmother Bea and I sat, both of us looking at the picture. Without speaking, both of us stood up as I hugged her, hoping that the power of Uncle John’s touch had passed to me. She pulled away from me, her hands on both of my arms. “Now, let’s have another little bit of whiskey and talk about you.” She smiled.
P.S. I didn’t share the photo because I want each of you to imagine Grandmother Bea as she was, much in the same way that each of us can imagine young Henry’s dark eyes and deep smile. One day, as each of us transitions from flesh to memory, it would serve us well to think of them both, precariously making plans, yet filled with life.