“The Photograph”: Part 2

I meant to post this last week, but things have been crazy with finals. I think I’ll post Part 3 on Thursday, and then Part 4 a week from Thursday. Enjoy!

© Sarah Parro 2011

All Rights Reserved

My mother had been a schoolteacher in the early years of her marriage. When my grandparents died, the farm went to her, since she was an only child. While my parents had inherited the family farm, my father had certainly not inherited any characteristics of a farming man. He was thin and a little short; my mother had been slightly taller than him, and now so was I. After my mother’s father died – which was when I was still a baby – the farm became co-managed by my grandmother and my parents. Not long after my grandmother passed away a few years later, the farm began its slow descent into disrepair. The farm equipment was sold off, piece by piece, as well as most of the land. What used to be nearly seven acres had been gradually reduced to one and a half. This had brought a decent amount of money into the family, and had helped put my sisters and me through college. My father always seemed relieved to relinquish the burden of the old family farm, but my mother never really wanted to talk about it. It was often discussions about what had been sold, or what should be sold next, that set her off into one of her infamous shouting matches.

When I saw my father now, grief and exhaustion had clearly aged him. Although only just sixty, his hair seemed to have gone grey in a matter of weeks; at least, I remembered more dusty brown at our last family gathering around my mother’s hospital bed.  He came through the back door, Cara and George’s twin, David, following behind. I stood up, and when he saw me he didn’t say a word. He just came and wrapped his arms around me, the warmest and strongest gesture of affection he and I had shared in what must have been years. We stood there in silence: my father holding me as if he were afraid I would evaporate, me being held and not knowing what else to do.

“It’s good to have you, Tammy.” Even after years of insisting to be called by my full name, my father still referred to me by the nickname that had been passed down from my mother.

“It’s good to be here, Dad,” I said, feeling idiotic for saying something that sounded so shallow and generic, as if I had arrived for a cocktail party instead of my mother’s funeral. He released me, gazed into my eyes for a moment, patted my shoulder, and then straightened himself up.

“Well,” he said, turning to Grace. “Smells great, honey. What are we having?” He began to help Grace get out dishes to set the dining room table, and Cara took her turn at giving me a hug. She was nearly my height, and the only blonde in the family.

“How long have you been here?” She asked as she pulled away, and before I could answer, she turned to her sons. “David, why don’t you and George go help Grandpa with the table?” The two boys raced each other to the next room.

“Only just now,” I answered. “How long have you been around?”

“Oh, since this morning. I wanted to come as soon as possible. Henry’s flying in tomorrow morning, though, because he had a huge proposal meeting that he just couldn’t get out of.” Henry, Cara’s husband, was the big shot vice president for an advertising agency in D.C. My sister had moved there with him right after they got married.

“How’s Dad been?” I asked. Cara sighed.

“About as we’d expect, I guess. Distant. Obviously sad, but he doesn’t seem to want to talk about anything. I asked him if he wanted me to come down to the funeral home with him today, but he insisted on doing everything himself.” She went to the sink to wash off her hands, and drained the big pot of what I now saw to be spaghetti.

“I guess Dad’s used to taking care of things around here,” I said, “since we left and Mom got sick.”

“I guess,” was all Cara had to say. She stirred the pasta sauce in silence, and I stood there, watching her back, not knowing what to do with myself. David and George ran back in.

“We need cups, Mommy,” George said, pulling on her pant leg.

“Aunt Tamara will get you some,” Cara said, nodding to me. After all the years, I still knew where the glasses were kept: top shelf, in the cabinet to the right of the sink. I pulled out two each for the boys to carry, and carried the rest into the dining room myself.

That old room contained so many memories. The dark wooden table and chairs added warmth, and the pale green, flower-patterned wallpaper added age. In a flash I realized that this was the last place my mother and I had been together in this house before she was hospitalized. It was Christmas, a year and half before, and we had argued. My mother had viewed my move to California as family abandonment, even though Cara and Grace had each eventually moved as well, and she took every opportunity she could to bring it up. She constantly criticized my choices, as if everything in my life was a direct insult to her. My father told me later that night not to worry about it, that Mom was just tired and a little drunk, and her health may be taking a turn for the worse. I had asked him if it was serious. “No,” he had said, “the doctors say it’s probably just a combination of things. Shouldn’t last long.”

I set the glasses on the table as my father arranged the flat-wear. He had even laid out the nice white tablecloth we had used at that Christmas dinner. The entire room felt like a strange, morbid shrine to a past that was not entirely pleasant, but created by people who did not know what else to wish for. The boys had run to the front room, playing some sort of mixture of tag and hide-and-seek. Grace had disappeared. My father and I were alone in the dining room, and the crushing silence felt unbearable on top of the weight of the memories that surrounded us. I struggled for a few moments with what to say to break the tension, and finally settled on,

“So, did you get everything sorted out for tomorrow?” My father looked up, and seemed to notice that he and I were the only ones in the room. He briefly met my eyes and then busied himself by rummaging for napkins in the bureau. I thought it was strange that he’d be looking for linen napkins for a simple family meal.

“Yes, yes,” he finally replied. “Just the way we planned.” I waited for him to go on, but he didn’t, so I wandered back into the kitchen to help serve the food.

We spent most of the meal in silence. I guessed that small talk would seem inappropriate, and so did talking about Mom, or anything normal. Just as I was finishing my spaghetti, my father set down his fork, dabbed his mouth with the white linen napkin – the same napkin, the strange thought occurred to me, that he may have used that last Christmas – and made an announcement.

“I’m going to sell off the farm.” His matter-of-fact statement hovered over us. George and David kept slurping their spaghetti, but Grace, Cara and I merely stared at my father. Maybe that was why he had wanted to set the table so nicely tonight; maybe this was to be our last family dinner in the old family home.

“What?” Cara finally sputtered. “Dad, why are you talking about this now?”

“I thought I should let you all know,” he said, steadily speaking to his water glass.

“When is this happening?” Grace asked, sounding distraught.  “How long have you been wanting to do this?”

“I signed the papers yesterday,” he said. “It’s something your mother and I had talked about. We knew we couldn’t ask any of you girls to take things over, and frankly, I’ll be glad to be free of the place.” I was surprised; I had never heard my father openly confess his dislike of managing the farm, although we had all seen it through the years.

“Yesterday?” Grace asked in disbelief. “But you haven’t even packed anything! When exactly are you planning on getting the place cleared out?” At this point, I continued eating, deciding this was a conversation I wanted to stay out of.

“Dad, you can’t just spring this on us,” Cara said. “And right before Mom’s funeral? Couldn’t you have at least waited?”

“I’ve already started packing things up,” my father said. “There’s not much more to do in terms of the farm, since we sold all of the equipment and most of the land off years ago. I just need to finish up here in the house.” I looked around; as far as I could tell, nothing hinted at moving out. No boxes, no missing furniture. Everything looked the same as the last time I’d seen it.

“Aren’t you going to say anything?”

I looked up at Cara, who was apparently talking to me.

“What do you want me to say? It’s Dad’s decision. I actually think it’s been a long time coming.”

“So our family falling apart, our home being sold off – none of this matters to you, does it?” Her voice started to shake, and she was on the verge of tears. I felt attacked.

“That’s not true,” I retorted harshly, now annoyed that my sisters’ display of emotion made me seem heartless. “It’s not my fault that Mom wouldn’t take care of herself, or that Dad doesn’t want to take care of this place!” I had started shouting without realizing it. David and George watched the adults quietly, perhaps afraid to see the grownups getting angry. “And don’t try to blame this on me! I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t care to keep the farm around. I never have. But it’s not like either of you could say differently!” Grace left the table quickly, letting out a single, tiny sob. Cara gave me an angry look and followed her. Apparently taking cue from their mother, the boys also slid off of their chairs, obviously eager to escape the exact kind of family drama that had always caused me to dread visits back home. I seemed to be perpetuating my mother’s tradition of ruining family gatherings.

My father looked up for the first time since he had made his announcement. He met my eyes for several seconds. He looked hurt, but didn’t say anything. Instead, he quietly got up, stacked everyone else’s plates except mine, and left me alone in the dining room.

I sighed and gulped down the rest of my wine. Another meal was ruined by an argument, in accordance with family tradition. I was surprised at how upset Cara and Grace had gotten. None of us had lived in this house for years; I didn’t know it still meant so much to them. As for me, it was hard to enjoy being home because every room seemed to be tainted by unpleasant memories. Mom’s decline seemed to crowd out any possibility of older, brighter memories breaking through.

Maybe I’d been too hard on them. But it wasn’t fair of them to act as if it was my fault all of this had happened. Was it so awful to want to get away from a place that had caused so much conflict and pain? It almost seemed appropriate for Dad to be doing this now, with Mom gone. He was right; neither my siblings nor I was willing or able to take care of everything here, and Dad clearly didn’t want the responsibility either.

For the first time since dinner started, I noticed a family portrait hanging on the wall opposite of where I was sitting. I got up to get a better look at it. We were all huddled on the front porch, my parents sitting together on the swing that was now broken, and my sisters and I sitting in a row at their feet. I must have been ten, maybe a bit older. Cara didn’t have all of her teeth yet, and Grace was practically still a baby. They probably had little or no recollection of this, but I realized it was one of my nicer memories of my family. I was holding a giant rainbow lollipop. This was the day we went to the fair with my grandparents. I couldn’t remember anything special happening that day; it was just a family day trip. But it was nice knowing that we had had nice family day trips, long ago.

Thinking I had hid in the dining room long enough, I gathered the rest of the dishes and decided to make a beeline for bed as soon as I finished washing them.

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2 thoughts on ““The Photograph”: Part 2

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