Riff on old family photo

The prompt for this writing was to imagine someone in shadow.

Aspire as in a form of breath. The earring catches on the collar. The heart flutters fast for no reason. Will the silk rug remain in place, the one that was my mother’s? Will the box of old photos reveal any secrets, or even anything new?

There’s my sister on my father’s shoulders, chewing a finger in nervous gesture in the summer sun. He grips her ankles and wears the relaxed face of a young man in his prime. Out for a picnic. Lulu Brook. On the other side of the state park’s carved sign stands my mother, shoulder canted backward as if to put my face front and center. I am say, five months old. There is a lace bonnet on my head. She wears the face of a young fertile woman in her prime, bringing babies into the world on time, every two years, one more to come.

I lived in the Berkshires for many, many years and then, not far from there in the Connecticut River Valley for a few more. But, I never went to Lulu Brook. It’s somewhere in the Southern Berkshires near the Connecticut border, I think. See? I don’t even know. By the time I lived in Western Mass., ages ten to twenty-one with time outs for school and travel and in three different abodes, there were no family outings to state parks. Suburbia and its demands. Dual careers and those demands. Three kids turning into angry or secretive adolescents and those demands.

And eventually, heart failure. His. The angina was so bad one night that he fell face forward into his dinner plate at Lenny’s Restaurant on Route 20 in New Lebanon, New York. If you lived far enough west in Massachusetts, you crossed the New York state line like others drove a little extra to get to the bigger mall. Somewhat revived on the stretcher rolling out the door, my father quipped, “Don’t order the scallops!” He was funny like that. But no sense of humor would keep his arteries from filling with plaque and seizing. Even surgery only granted him three years more.

But on the summer day of the photo, the year of my birth, when he was twenty-eight and my mother was twenty-four, what could they know of what lay ahead?

One generation earlier, hope skewed much more toward survival, my mother’s father arriving to Ellis Island in his twenties, soon to work the docks in Brooklyn and not long after that, to marry my grandmother, Alice, whose family still lived in County Cork. His name was Albert. They called each other “Al.” It wasn’t until my mother’s younger sister was in grade school and visiting a friend’s house that she realized that not all parents called each other “Al.”

My great-grandmother also came here but returned to Ireland for a while after the death of her young daughter, Mary. Perhaps she wanted the solace of her own mother or maybe she needed the quiet rural landscape of her ancestors instead of the grimy racket of Brooklyn. She was already pregnant with another daughter, who she would also name Mary. I think about the second Mary, conceived before the first Mary’s burial, being born into a clutch of intense grief, expected to bear the name of a little girl already gone into the light.

You wonder how a mother could do that to a child, I don’t care if it was common. Rather than placing honor on new life, it has the stink of a curse. “See New Mary! How much longer will she live than Dead Mary?” All Marys will eventually be Dead Marys, but still. The older sister wasn’t yet dead when the cells of Second Mary began their furious division.

Speaking of furious cell division, my mother might have been pregnant with me in this photo. If not, then it is mere weeks off. Is she smoking? Even with two pairs of eyeglasses on, I can’t quite tell, but probably. It’s the right gesture. It’s the correct hand. It’s the reason I was born teeny and spent the first nine days of my life in an incubator.

15 thoughts on “Riff on old family photo

  1. Ginny

    Each new photos bring on more and more questions!

    What killed first Mary? What about 2nd Mary, did she resent the recent dead? I was named for the recent dead too. I never liked my name. I never felt any connection to it. Like someone else’s hand me down coat. I wonder if Mary felt like that too.

    Yes your mother looks like she is smoking. Why did I not know you were a premie? No one ever mentioned it. That would have been big news to the Queens crowd. They all smoked back then. It would never occur to them to give up cigarettes during pregnancy, or booze.

    Your clan moved so much.
    Mine never budged, until a gun was to their head.
    Were there always gun(s) involved? Probably yes. Though I could move every 5 to 10 years and be perfectly happy. Roots never seemed right for me either.

    Were the NJ relations ever mentioned by yours?
    They were never mentioned in NY. I wonder about them. Did they know about us? I will have to ask.

    I know the slights against our aunt … the baby envy, nasty, was alcohol abuse ever mentioned? That was the big demon in Queens, more than envy.

    About the aunt, I’d say more than envy, she was a know-it-all. A family trait for sure. That can work a nerve.

    (As a side note, a psycho ex-sister in law threw that baby envy term at me many times. She was certifiable. I was far from envious. She said I was cursed by god. Possible. More likely I think the Queens Mallon dna is attracted to lunacy. A scary thought. Perhaps another family trait locked in the dna?)

    If there was baby envy in our clan, my brothers reaped the benefits of the attention not the girls. They went on vacations. I was taught to iron curtains and bead flowers. In some ways the Queens crowd were so old fashioned in their ideas about roles and duties. I know no one was impressed I graduated college. If I were a boy they would have paid my way. Old school and old demons. I always attributed our lack of finesse to Appalachia. But I know now that is not the case. This trail starts and ends in NJ. Just as well. I’m not in the mood to drive 13 hours to dig up dirt.

    Thanks for sharing Dee. I wish at least one in the old crowd would have written something down!! Forensic archeology is a bore.

    On another note our great great grandfather fought in the civil war. I have some dirt on that I can share soon. And on the right side too. Thank god!

    1. deemallon Post author

      There’s a ton to respond to here and to ponder but I wanted to answer two questions right off the bat. I figured out the double Mary thing but studying my mother’s family in ancestry. The timing of death and birth and some sea voyages are evident. So I don’t know what killed the first Mary or how the second Mary felt about her name.

      I’ve always known that my father was born in Fort Lee, NJ then raised in Queens (tho for some reason in my house, he always referred to home as Brooklyn). I didn’t know about all the other ties to NJ that your recent research has turned up.

      I don’t know if I was a premie. That was never said. Babies of smokers tend to be small, even if carried to term. My mother smoked A LOT.

  2. Nancy

    Fascinating, both yesterday and today’s posts. It is absorbed through my eyes filled with mental images and stories of my current read, also about family history and immigrants.
    Poor New Mary.
    On another note, I finally came up with a solution to the photos not loading (only here and at Hazel’s for now)…they do seem to load in the email alert. So now I can read there first, then come here to comment. We’ll see how that works. 🙂

  3. Tina

    Reading this I imagined myself floating along a lady river .. each word each sentence just flowed so perfectly. Thank you for this.

  4. Liz A

    the stories you tell make my heart hurt … and I think how pictures, like today’s carefully curated feeds on Instagram and Facebook, can belie reality … but oh, your mom was beautiful and she looks so very happy to be holding you close

    I have a CD full of random photos from my childhood that my brother sent some years back … I no longer have a computer with a CD drive and I’m absolutely okay with that …

  5. Saskia

    what we happen to know when looking at photographs of our ancestors,
    so much more that we don’t

    my mother kept telling us to ask her more questions…..we didn’t know what to?
    of course we didn’t
    my mother smoked during all of her pregnancies, when I asked her about that, she got angry and defensive: ‘we all did at the time! we didn’t know any better!’
    in my case it didn’t make any difference ( I guess) as I was a healthy 7-pounder

    a couple of days before my dad’s cremation last week we (i.e. my brother, sister and I) discovered a moving-box from the attic stuffed with correspondence and photographs offering us wonderful insights into our parents’ lives….how we would have loved to have been able to read them together with them
    however, no regrets…..I am very grateful at being able to share this with my siblings
    and you
    lovely post Dee x

      1. Nancy

        I did ask some, but their is always more afterwards. Nobody asks now. This younger generation does not have interest in my experience. Oh well.


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