Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Time, and Old Pictures

They seem remote, our ancestors, a gulf of time between us, their cultures differing from ours to the point of being alien. The details of their lives are lost to us, with lightning-flash moments sometimes all that remains, capturing an instant that often has little context for us to divine what these phantoms were like.

Granvil Dexter Black and Hester Florence Tenney, my paternal great-grandparents. Granvil was born in 1870, Hester in 1874, meaning this picture likely dates from the 1890s. This was almost certainly taken in Upshur County, West Virginia. The Blacks lived in Virginia and West Virginia from Colonial times, back to at least Alexander Black in the 1760s.
I know scant little about my cousins and aunts and uncles from the Old Man's side of the family, let alone my ancestors beyond a generation or two before mine. My father seemed to have little interest in his family; there were a number of his siblings that I never met, and he never spoke of them. One of his brothers, perhaps the only remaining one at the time, I first met at the Old Man's funeral, and he seemed just as taciturn. Old, white-bearded, almost gaunt, I only recognized the relation by way of the piercing eyes. He himself would pass before much more time had passed.

All I know about this picture is that Granvil and Hester are the first two seated adults to the left in the front row. Again, this must have been taken in the 1890s in or near Upshur County, West Virginia.
The ephemeral nature of life has always fascinated, or perhaps I would be more accurate saying haunted, me. We move ahead with life, rarely looking back, and even blood ties fade in importance as time alters and ends relationships and lives.

Hester, by then called Granny Black, sits surrounded by her grandchildren, sometime in the late 1930s; notably absent is Granvil, who died in 1937. Granny Black would live for the better part of three more decades, passing in 1964. But now a face familiar to me enters the picture, literally; that's Emmett, eventually to be called by me the Old Man, second from the left in the back row. Not a bad haircut, I must say. Of the rest, I only ever met his sister Lucille, second from the right in the back row. She is still living, but since the Old Man's death she has moved and did not give us contact information. I suspect his death was harder on her than I imagined it would be; she was the only one of his siblings who had any kind of relationship with him that I know of.

It's a relentless thing, time is, dragging us all along whether we want to make the journey or not. What should I, or anyone, expect, though? Time has even ground down the Appalachians of West Virginia, softening and blurring and reducing those once-towering peaks, their long-hidden hearts now close to the surface, sleeping under a thick blanket of forest. Time sends even the mountains to their death-beds, dreaming in their dotage.

Lloyd Black, one of the children of Granvil and Hester, 1905-1968. The Old Man's Old Man. Rather dapper-looking sometime in the 1930s, I'm guessing. My father so closely resembled his father that it was eerie. I was convinced this was a picture of my dad for a good while. They apparently shared a temperament, too, by my grandmother's account.
Time has been compared to a river. It's an apt comparison, if you think of it as having many twists and turns and rapids and falls and placid pools along the way, with the ending coming anywhere on its length. All rivers lead, eventually, to a sea, figuratively and literally, and perhaps that is why we are so drawn to these waters.

The Old Man himself, in 1964, along the shore of Lake Erie, the Cleveland skyline in the distance.

The currents and eddies and waves of time's waters constantly push and pull us apart, making the close bonds of family, friendship, and romantic bonding even more precious in the time we have with them. Yet many seem to strive to help along those watery forces, working to catch waves and ride currents to new souls with which to bond.
My mother, Calcie.

Some of us are restless, seemingly always yearning for something or someone new, the unknown a powerful draw. Some of us, like me, long for permanency, to travel the great river of time with those with whom we are familiar, as though onboard some great temporal cruise ship, in that way defying - futilely in the end, I admit - the unstoppable flow.

My parents, October 1964. I would not enter the timestream for almost a year-and-a-half.

But is it really futile? Are we not, in some small way, attempting to impose some structure upon the universe with such defiance? Are we not agents of order working to at least slow the effects of entropy, the great river that washes all away before it? Are not the bonds we have with each other, whether those we are born with, or the ones we create ourselves, akin to a great lattice upon which our lives can find purchase to grow, like ivy up the side of a house? I like to think that creating such a structure is one of the ways we have of becoming eternal.

I make my appearance in 1966. My mother and I seem to be enjoying a nice day in Cleveland.
Most of us don't do any of this consciously, of course. Day to day life occupies our attention until, perhaps, one day we look up and see how far along the river we've traveled, and gauge how much further we can expect to go. That's when we truly begin to think seriously about making our mark upon the eternal.

The Old Man, my sister Bonita, and me, likely sometime in late 1968. I believe that's a '64 Galaxie behind the Mercury Montego station wagon.

Legacies are varied, and each of us can choose what to leave behind. Children, works of our hands, ideas...they all extend us into the future beyond our span of years, moving a bit of us farther along the river. Is it enough? For some, I'm sure it is. Even if it isn't, it's truly the only choice, unless you choose nothing. And that seems to me like no kind of choice to make.

My mother's mother, Marie Holbrook, surrounded by grandchildren. My mother's side of the family is also hillfolk, this time in the rugged, coal-rich hills of eastern Kentucky. Not as much information and photographic evidence exists as on my father's side. That's me to my grandmother's left, screen right, with my sister next to me. My cousin Anna Ruth, nicknamed Boo Boo, sits on the far right, highly amused by something.

My maternal grandmother was widowed in 1962, four years before I was born. Until the end of her life in 1998, whenever asked why she had never remarried, she said, simply, "I am married." For her, death was not an impediment to love, and did not render that bond void. I always felt that she truly understood the eternal. For her, there was, ultimately, a point to existence. For her, entropy was illusory.

From left to right: me, with an aggravating smirk; my brother, Emmett; and, of course, my sister, sometime in 1970.

That's not an easy way to live. It requires moving against the current, heading through rough waters when smoother ways are easily surrendered to. I'm not saying it's superior, or the way for everyone to live. It's a strong choice, though, and our lives are defined by our choices.

My father's youngest brother, Zane. 23 years my father's junior, he was the Old Man's favorite sibling. One hell of a handsome kid; too bad those handsomeness genes skipped my generation. I remember him from one vivid visit, probably in 1968, when he was on leave from the Marines. I remember being transfixed by his dark, deep, piercing eyes, and the sadness that even then I could feel. That memory has stuck with me my whole life.
It's easy to feel lost as we move along time's river. The choices we make have a cascade effect, altering our course in ways that may seem minute when made, but which can become insurmountable, at least in our minds. It's easy at that point to feel that the currents of time have us in their control. That's why that great lattice, those interconnected bonds, are so important. They help remind us of the eternal.

Newspaper notice of the death of my uncle Zane, in December, 1971. It's all very sad, and the part that haunts me most is: Since his discharge, friends said, he had demonstrated a despondency which had not been a part of his personality before his military service.

Life seems to be an unending string of moments, of pivot points, where we can set sail in new directions or surrender to the whims of the current. Either way, we choose to remain in the river, charting courses as best we can, even if that course is no course at all.