I know the story each photograph holds because I’ve heard them hundreds of times. My Dad and I would visit Great Grandma Rhona every Sunday morning. Holding the two loudly patterned photo-albums close to my chest, I’d follow closely behind him, as we made our way through the wide hallways – which were often swelled with the heavy sent of lunch being prepared. White-haired ladies would rise from their seats, and inch toward the doorways. I, puzzled as to why seeing a six-year-olds face was one of the most anticipated events of the day. As they would move from their doorways into the hall, I recall being rather frightened – they would reach-out to touch my hands and pinch my skin. My Dad, only steps in front of me, would turn to share a knowing smile, a nod, and a blink – I was no longer scared.
At the end of the hall, next to the big window on the left, sat Grandma Rhona’s room. My Dad would gently rap at the door. I’m not sure if it was that she never heard the gentle knock, or if she did, and just chose to continue to stare out the large window before her. She settled in the corner. My Dad would step in and gently place his hand on her shoulder. As she would look up, her gaze fixed on his face, I could see she was very excited about this visit; her face brightened. She looked like a child. “Dan,” she would say enthusiastically. Though she knew his name, I don’t know that she knew him – that is, she couldn’t remember. “This is Mandy,” he would smile. As a child, going through this familiar routine and still having my Dad introduce me was a tradition I found difficult to understand.
I would then present the albums. Grandma Rhona and I would sit on either side of my Dad. He would flip through the pages, pointing-out each face, placing a name, and making the connections for her, “That’s your brother, Donald,” he’d inform. Rhona was perpetually shocked upon this discovery.
On the third page, placed directly in the centre, sat a photograph of a boy. He is perched on a roof so high up, the leafy branches reaching for him. His feet are dusted with dirt, especially his heels. The bright-blonde hair makes the 10-year-old boy barely recognizable – he is my Dad. Yellow sweat-pants are in stark contrast with the deep grey shingles. It looks to be a sunlit day, I wonder if the shingles were hot on the palms of his hands. His eyes: squinted, brows lowered in attempt to keep out the sun. I see the grey roof and realize it’s the home on Lacon Street where he was raised.
Among three significantly older sisters, my Dad is the only boy in his family. He would often tell stories of a somewhat lonesome childhood, in where he would spend days’ venturing off alone; maybe that afternoon was one of them.
My Dad tells Rhona that the small boy in the photo is him, she laughs.
A page over, there is a time difference of twenty years. It is the peak of summer at Katepwa Lake, perhaps July. My hair, much like my Dad’s back in ’76, is so light it’s glowing. I’m wearing a bathing suit covered in a pattern of sunflowers. There are five people in the photo, my eyes are the only one’s directly visible to the camera. Behind me stands my Uncle – he’s giving me “bunny ears.” Sunglasses and a red-brimmed baseball cap which reads “Hounds,” covers his eyes. Though I call him my uncle, I’m not sure he was. “Rex” (as he would tell us to call him), was one of the men my aunt was attached to briefly, I’m not sure they were ever married – I could be wrong. I recall him calling my cousin Steffanine and I “loonies” in a playful tone moments before this shot.
Steffanie stands next to me. She is entranced by what she is holding inches away from her face with both hands – a giant cow’s bone she’s likely found on the shore. Mickey Mouse is on her bathing suit. Her feet, bare.
My brother is up to her waist. All that’s visible is the back of his head as he observes Steffanie’s skeletal treasure. He must’ve been three that summer. He, too, has the signature blonde hair of our Dad. It wisps around his ears, which stick out just barely enough to notice, making him appear a little like Dopey from Snow White – he does grow into the ears eleven years later. To the far left, sitting underneath a sky-blue umbrella, is my Grandpa – my Dad’s Dad. He is watching Rex give me “bunny ears.” He is laughing. In his hand he holds five pencil crayons: red, navy, kelly green, yellow, and white. Papers scattered before him -- sketches fill their corners. He looks relaxed – with one leg up on the beach chair in front of him.
Today, we do not speak. It’s been five years since I last saw him, and six since we’ve spoken. Though I dream of these drawing moments often.
On the second-last page of the album, I spot a photograph that (even though it was taken nearly twenty-years ago) could’ve been captured last night. The same small girls from the pervious photo stand next to each other: Steffanie and myself, this time, faces painted with yellow stars. This moment was captured in Abbotsford, British Colombia. We are standing on a balcony. Three giant cherry blossom trees are in full bloom, it must’ve been springtime. Both wear BIG smiles; Steffanie’s gap-toothed. Heavy coffee-coloured bangs cover her eyes. She is holding a bouquet of paper flowers, the stems made of straws. Her free hand is flashing the camera peace. She looks delighted to be having a photo snapped.
I am to her left. And nearly a foot shorter. My palm open, fingers spread. I’m in the middle of saying something to the picture-taker.
I visited Steffanie this past August in Vancouver. We hadn’t seen each other in nearly seven years – our parents no longer speak. In midst conversation, we would frequently stop one another to comment on how our faces are the same roundness and our noses are of similar wideness – “definitely cousins!” – we’d remark proudly. While at a pub downtown, I caught her glace in the mirror as we washed our hands, side-by-side. “Your hair is just like mine!” she exclaimed, “you know, like, it’s wavy and you’ve got a lot of it, but it’s sort of thin?” I knew just what she meant and laughed in agreeance.
Everybody can look like somebody. Comparing the looks of those around you to movie stars is an entertaining past-time. Though, there’s something different about family resemblances. You actually look like these faces. And in many ways you share faces. This association is one not easily escaped. For every time the mirror meets the eyes, you see them. I’ve always been told I look like my Mom. And I do agree, more or less. She, too, is blonde with green eyes and rosey lips. Though, it seems those who really see me would say I appear more like my Dad. Our lip shape is identical: thin upper-lip, thicker on the lower, thus making our smile is uncannily similar. When he smiles big I see how his eye-teeth are placed just as mine are.
I call them “mirror moments.” And they happen at the most accidental times; I’ll be curling my eyelashes, and then I have the initial flash preceded by the – sometimes – couple minute trance in where I think: this is me. How strange it is that I am here, in this room, in this place. I begin to feel a bit crazy, even talk out-loud to myself just to see my mouth move and hear a voice escape. Where does that voice come from, how am I able to produce it, are others as fascinated by this seemingly simple act? Something – perhaps a noise – usually breaks this introspective process, and at times, I am glad, as the questioning can become so overwhelming, I become unsure of all reality.
Rhona could not remember the faces in her own life, so the photographs did the remembering for her.
We would be back next week to tell the same stories, recognize the same faces, reintroduce ourselves; to see one another.