OPINION

Just Thinking: Photo of father doesn't fit family circle

Margo Bartlett
Guest Columnist

Everyone’s cache of family photographs includes a few surprises.  

You rifle through a mass of ancient, curling Kodaks, and there among the anonymous bonneted babies in wicker prams and ladies posed on the porch of a house you don’t recognize is your grandmother, drinking lemonade with F. Scott Fitzgerald, or there’s your grandmother’s father, offering Mark Twain a cigar. 

Margo Bartlett

We all intend to do something about the eroding mountains of photos that somehow wind up in our possession, but few people actually get around to it. The surprising pictures will be like all the others – without dates or explanation.  

How we come to possess billions of family pictures is really the first question.  

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I was the younger of two siblings; my mother was the second of four; and my grandmother the sixth of seven. None of us was the likely conservator of family history, yet here I am, with so many unmarked photographs stashed away in various crannies that I feel like a guilty squirrel.  

In fact, I doubt I possess the bulk of pictures from my extended family. 

The cousin who has a productive interest in genealogy has most of them, I assume, because his father also was the photographer.  

The pictures I have cluster around my immediate family, though a healthy number, feature my maternal grandparents in various stages of parenthood. Of my grandmother’s six siblings, I have virtually nothing beyond, of course, the miracle of the internet. I typed my grandmother’s name into Google and was astonished by the stories I had found. 

But I didn’t come here to make you climb my family tree. 

I came here because in the circular metal container that holds the oldest of my pictures is the surprise.  

It’s not really a surprise, of course, but it doesn’t belong in this jumble of photos. For one thing, it’s not a family picture; it’s a black-and-white print of a newspaper photo. For another, it features my father, whose absence from most of my pictures is striking. 

Not striking to me, of course. My father told my mother he was leaving two days after my sister turned 3. I had arrived in the world two weeks earlier and had no memories of him to forget or rearrange.  

When he reappeared in our lives 10 years later, annoying and repentant (but mostly annoying), he was a stranger.

Fortunately for us all, my mother, who may well have still loved him, had learned in the decade without him never to trust him again. He went away, and although I saw him once or twice after that, his lack of interest in my existence was undeniable. So much for the paternal influence. What I know of my father is that he looked like F. Scott Fitzgerald. 

Anyway, the photo.  

It was taken in the Youngstown Public Library, where, looking at an issue of The Vindicator in a bound volume of newspapers are my father and the First Lady of the United States, Eleanor Roosevelt. 

“Mrs. Roosevelt and (my father), state supervisor, at the Youngstown Vindicator Unit of the WPA Newspaper Index Project in the Youngstown Public Library, October 27, 1939,” the caption reads. 

Now what am I supposed to do with this picture? There’s my father, looking like Fitzgerald, which was one of the annoying things about him, and there’s Eleanor Roosevelt, looking like Eleanor Roosevelt. After some thought, I emailed the photo department of The Vindicator, asking about their archives.  

I doubt The Vindicator will be eager to claim my photo. And while W.P.A. records are in the National Archives, I can’t imagine Washington will be begging for this picture, either.  

“We have Mrs. Roosevelt coming out the ears,” I imagine a bored curator saying. “And who did you say this dude with the buttonhole carnation is?” 

“I have no idea beyond his name,” I would reply honestly enough.

I only recently learned this dude is buried at Arlington while my mother, who died when I was 19 of exhaustion, depression and an undiagnosed illness, is buried in an Ohio cemetery next to her parents. 

Anyway. I have this photo. 

Write to Margo Bartlett at margo.bartlett@gmail.com