Credit: Tom Williams

The old color photo arrived without fanfare in an email from a cousin I haven’t seen in a long time. He simply wrote, “Dad scanned many of his old Kodachrome slides. You might find this one interesting.”

Oh yes, I did. My eyes started watering.

The photo is so clear that you feel you can touch the yawning 5-month-old baby in a light blue onesie on his delighted grandmother’s lap. To her right is a 52-year-old man who is leaning forward with a captivating energy that almost overwhelms the image. In the corner is a cool space age lamp and pack of cigarettes, the devils that eventually killed him.

The man was my father’s father, my granddaddy. The woman wearing the print dress that she probably made was my grandmother. For more than two decades, they’d been living in Macon, Ga., where my dad had a newspaper route, grew up and went to college.

Granddaddy, who toiled on a small Georgia cotton farm until he was in his early 30s, drove a Trailways bus for three decades. My grandmother, known far and wide for her biscuits and delectable pies and desserts, worked as a clerk in a department store. They lived simply in a house they built where he puttered in a shop during time off and she cooked, sewed and kept house. Every two weeks, she got her hair done at a neighbor’s shop down the street. Every week, she headed to the Primitive Baptist church. He went most of the time.

Three things strike me about this photo, taken by my cousin’s father in 1962. He worked at Southern Bell through the years, but has been a shutterbug since his time in the Marines. 

First is the clarity, detail and warmth of the image on film. Today’s high-tech digital cameras can mimic the look through filters and special settings, but they can’t touch a picture taken by a gifted photographer who understands lighting, depth of field and how to create an engaging,  dramatic image. Good photographers like Tommy Williams, who spent his career in Savannah, know just the second to snap the shutter to get a memorable picture.

Second, the old photo shared something new — physical ways that I can see myself in my grandfather. I have never really thought we looked much alike. But the picture tells a different story — in the way he’s leaning forward, the slope of his shoulders and the shape of his forearm. And despite differently shaped heads, I feel like I’m looking into my eyes and seeing my brows — or those of my now 86-year-old father — in his face.

It’s a weird feeling to see yourself in someone else for the first time 60 years after your birth.  And it’s just plain emotional, bringing back wave upon wave of good memories from eating watermelon in their backyard (“You put salt on it, boy”) to hearing the electric saw tearing through wood in his latest project. Or sitting down for breakfast at the break of dawn to eat mouth-watering biscuits (made with lard), eggs, grits, bacon and coffee (kids only got coffee-milk). Or walking next door to visit with his sister and his mother, my Great Granny who dipped snuff and mostly seemed to sit in the corner.

Finally, the old photo also made me think more broadly — about the maternal grandfather I never knew because he died in a tractor accident on his farm three years before I was born. And his wife, my Granna, who taught just about every grade in school in Arkansas before moving to Macon with her family after World War II. She, too, died of lung cancer from the very same Winstons in the photo.

This physical connection to the past also made me think even bigger about family in general – how we connect throughout our lives in little ways and big with children, siblings, parents, cousins, uncles — and great aunts named Lillie Pearl.

The little boy in the picture is yawning. But the picture made him as an adult do anything but.

Andy Brack, editor and publisher of the Charleston City Paper, usually writes about S.C. policy and politics. But every now and then, it’s time for a break. Like now. Have a comment? Send to: feedback@charlestoncitypaper.com.

This story also appeared in Statehouse Report.


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