Originally appearing at: Bookslut
Almost two years ago, my grandmother's last surviving sibling passed away and bequeathed to my mother her own mother Julia's photo albums. A few months later, three oversized books, with black scrapbook pages and pasted photographs dating to the turn of the last century, arrived. Since Julia's death in 1972 the albums resided in a succession of closets and except for a brief perusal by my grandmother in the late 1980s, no one had really looked at them in decades. My mother and I painstakingly removed the pictures, mourned those that had completely faded away due to the acid-heavy paper, and searched for notes to assist us in identification. Right now I am in the midst of a massive project to digitally scan them all, create captions, and mail the originals out to cousins and second cousins who will see photos of their parents and grandparents for the first time. It is enormously time consuming, but also endlessly interesting. On Facebook my extended family has cheered every photo upload, delighted beyond measure by baby pictures from 1914, children lined up in a row in 1925, and a stack of days at the beach from 1934 and 1935. It's our collective history in black and white, and we feel like we are reclaiming it, one faded image at a time.
It was entirely serendipitous then that Judith Kitchen's Half in Shade: Family, Photography, and Fate should come to my attention in the midst of this project. Over a ten-year period, Kitchen worked on Half in Shade, trying to come to terms with an inherited collection of family memorabilia that enlightened as much as it confused. Tracking the clues through photographs, letters, partially-written parental histories, and those same frustrating hints found on the backs of pictures and envelopes that I am all too familiar with, Kitchen pieced together a memoir of what she knows, what she suspects, and what she can only imagine.
With the pictures included in the text as her evidence, she writes of a family member in Paris, her mother's whispered childhood, and of people she never met who might have been significant, or then again, might have been no one at all. Most compelling is her attempt to find out the things she does not know but suspects about her mother, including an unexpected romance. I felt the same curiosity when I came across a large formal photo of my great aunt and a gorgeous sailor, as well as when I found a picture of a great uncle with his arms around a laughing girl on his lap -- another face we had never seen. Your brain screams with the questions of who and where and why, with all the things you never even knew you should ask, in such moments. Kitchen now asks those questions of the universe, incapable of ignoring them, even though she knows the answers will never come. Some mysteries, with their tantalizing photos, are truly irresistible.
Author Lacy Johnson knows what it is to wander the convoluted paths of family history, and in Trespasses she recounts the interviews conducted with her family members back in rural Missouri. In short narratives, often of only a single page, Johnson ponders conversations with parents and grandparents and her own conflicted emotions about the people she loves, but in many ways does not understand. Her words are brief but effective. Here's a bit:
I also don't ask my parents to talk about racism. Or why they disowned my sister. I don't ask them to justify their actions to me. It's unjustifiable and we all know it. I don't ask about their marriage, or how and why it failed. I don't ask what anyone would have done differently. Instead, my grandparents look out the windows. My aunts and uncles buy us dinner. My father answers only the questions that I ask out loud. My mother breaks down in tears.
Johnson is a woman on a mission; Trespasses is largely about traveling the geography of home solely so she can understand what and whom she left and why she finds it so gut wrenching to return. She knows these people well, but, with her husband in tow, insists on knowing them better. Their extreme reticence, their nearly universal confusion over why she would even want to know about their pasts, is something she cannot tolerate. While she does pull her punches on a few subjects, she asks the questions in spite of knowing they likely will not satisfy her with their answers. Judith Kitchen, searching fruitlessly for clues to her mother's shipboard romance in a record and passenger list from 1930, is stuck asking those questions of documents. It's interesting that these two authors believe so strongly that the truth -- the revelations big and small -- will set them free, while their families have felt the opposite. It makes you wonder where Kitchen's and Johnson's drive came from and how all those secrets could produce two woman determined to unearth as many of them as possible.
For me, there is the end of the 1930s and the large pile of photos waiting for the next decade, and the next, and the next. In her lifetime, my great grandmother Julia gave few of her secrets away, and my grandmother respected her silence. Cut loose from generations of disapproval, I am much freer to go searching in the records for all the things Julia did not share. There are shocking things in my family's past, as there are in every family's, and the more I learn, the more I feel compelled to discover. Like Kitchen and Johnson, I want to know. Maybe once I know enough about them, I will better know myself. It's a journey worth taking for all of us, and a subject so poignantly explored in these two books. Even though their stories are not our own, we readers cannot look away. Kitchen and Johnson, so avid to learn more, would certainly understand.
Half in Shade: Family, Photography, and Fate by Judith Kitchen
Coffee House Press
Trespasses by Lacy Johnson
University of Iowa Press