Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Found Picture Trilogy: One. Mary at Grandma Bertha's


Sometimes the universe just hits us with the unexpected. While at garage sale about a year ago, I found an old file folder stuffed with papers and pictures. The person (an acquaintance of mine) was selling things that a friend of her neighbor had been keeping in her garage and just wanted to get rid of. There were boxes and boxes of glasses, dishes and old books. Tucked down behind some picture frames was this folder.

I picked up the folder and being the writer (and snoopy person) that I am, I sat down and began to go through the papers there. It was was filled with old documents, pay stubs, grade cards and photos. The old faded and torn tab read, "Sarah's Divorce." Slowly, the file began sharing its secrets: the ragged divorce petition, the tattered child support papers for "Mary" aged 16 and "John" aged 15. After the divorce came the poor report cards for the son, then the orders to appear in court for him as well. Also included in the file was an informational handout on Parkinson's disease and (strangely enough) a manual for a new refrigerator. Then there is a letter from a high school counselor to a judge concerning the son, saying he is "making progress," but noting that the boy needed to make new friends, "better friends who have less destructive habits." There is a court document requesting a urine test. From other papers, it was clear the father had moved to Missouri.

I sat there, peering into these lives, feeling a bit guilty but mostly melancholy for this family, and especially for the son whose family had broken up at a pivotal time in his life. I thought about all these papers and forms, the legal notices from the court, how papers can only tell superficial and surface stories. I wondered what had become of these people.

Then at the back of the folder, I saw it: It was a picture of one of my own students that very semester. She was there, posed for a Christmas picture with her husband and son. Then, it all came together--her last name, her picture--she had married John, the son. My mind shot back to her first narrative essay in which she mentioned her husband in which she had used his name. In the essay she had written about he didn't really support her returning to school, and so she had to work during the day and take one night class a semester. She had married early and had a baby early, but now she was determined to get her education for the sake of her family.

My immediate thought was that I would give her this file. It had so much information in it, a few pictures of her husband, her child, not to mention social security numbers of her husband and his family. However, then I thought again. How would she feel, knowing I had seen all of this information? Surely she would be embarrassed, and well, a little freaked out. I thought about mailing it to her anonymously--too creepy.

Betty Fans, what would you have done?

Well, I stole that file. I didn't even ask the person running the garage sale if I could have it. (I didn't want to run the risk of her saying no.) I just tucked it up under my arm and walked right to my car. I wanted to protect my student at least that much. I had planned to destroy the file, but for some reason I just couldn't. There's so many stories that tug at my heart in that folder and for some reason that I really can't explain, I feel like I need to keep it, at least for a little while.

The picture below comes from that folder. Written on the back in loopy letters is "Mary, at Grandma Bertha's." Mary, the older sister was mentioned only in the child support document.

As a photographer, I love this picture for a lot of reasons--the colors, the background of the wire gate and the old RV behind her set the scene of her grandmother's place. The spontaneity of the little girl shows, as the camera captured her in mid-stride, in the act of wrapping her towel around her, fresh out of the pool, her wet hair drying in the sunshine.

As a writer and a mother, I love it because it freezes her in time--before her family fell apart, before her father moved to Missouri, before her brother got involved in drugs and the whole complicated court system, before Parkinson's invaded her family's life. I am glad she is preserved there at this happy, free moment, under the California sun, at her grandma's house.

In my mind, she is running into the arms of someone who loves her.


1 comment:

LittleSilkDress said...

I'm not sure there is a good way to give someone such personal documents. Keeping them, at least for now, probably is the best decision.