Around the turn of the century, my grandmother asked me to clean up the basement of her house. My dad and my uncle were going to remodel it soon, she said, and there was just too much stuff in the way. Canned goods, articles they brought back from the lakeside cottage they sold, things that my aunt left behind–enough things for two houses and a shed, it seemed.
For several consecutive nights, I cleaned and I gleaned, throwing away detritus and bric-a-brac that didn’t resonate with me and some things that did, and on occasion, lumbering up the steps with some accidental maybe-treasure that I wanted to show to grandma. It was probably there that I last saw the lamps made out of popsicle sticks. It was there that I found a devotional painting of Mother Mary–maybe by my great grandmother’s hand but probably not. It was there that I found a tupperware container filled with photographs–all of which I still possess, many of which are the primary reason this blog exists.
Here’s one I had to show my grandmother:
Carl was my grandmother’s husband, and the rest were brothers-in-law. They grew up farmers and then splintered toward other lines of work. I could write about all of them to a varying degree, but cliff-notes will have to do for now. Leo was the youngest by far, grew to resent my grandfather’s paternal manner, and is still around … somewhere. Dick was often called Joe, and I don’t know why. My dad and my uncle called him “Uncle Eagle-beak,” because he had a crooked nose. I’m told he broke it as a kid, when he tried to go sledding without any snow on the ground.
I can’t make that up.
All I’ve ever heard about Johnny was that he was a fantastic bowler and lived in St. Louis. Hank is gone now, too, but I remember him vaguely. Oddly enough, I’ve seen part of his wedding video on VHS. He was old and pot-bellied, and he looked uncomfortable in a white, button-down shirt. The ceremony was in his kitchen. I wish I could remember whether he was wearing a trucker hat.
But the photo above … God, they’ve all got their eyes closed.
When I showed it to my grandmother, she squinted her eyes like they did and said, “What a bunch of polacks.” And it was true.
Years later, I was at my cousin Mark’s open house. Joe (or Dick or Eagle-beak, take your pick) was there. Mark dug up the photo for me, and I showed it to Uncle Joe. He smiled the smile you see him wearing above and said, “What a bunch of hombres, huh?”
More years later, I’m at my laptop, writing this post, trying to play down how hilarious this photograph’s been to anyone in my family who’s laid an eye on it. And what should emerge from that slew of photographs but this:
They’ve all got their eyes open!
I wish I’d found this two years ago, or eight … but not really.