Creative Nonfiction Fiction

Faded photographs, covered now with lines and creases…

~ Classics IV, “Traces” (1969)

Mara was surprised when the words from that old song popped into her head. She was surprised in part because she was looking, not at a set of photographs, but at just one photograph. She thought momentarily about the difference, and concluded there was one and that it might be a crucial one.

The framed image before her didn’t seem to be faded, either. Nevertheless, the photograph looked a bit like it was faded simply because it was old. 

"Does something that is faded have to be old? Does something that is old always end up faded?" (Mara would like to find the answers to these questions.)

In other words and to clarify, the image had never been in color; it had always had just dark and light tones. Just how light and dark is another question entirely. There was one thing to note, and it had always seemed quite creepy to Mara that this was done: there were some additional hues overlaid onto the original photograph.

"Who decided that painting specks and dots here and there on the surface of the photo will enhance the appearance?" Mara wondered, because she had seen cases where the tiny brushstrokes had seemed to float atop the ombre shades.

Here and there an artist, following an old practice, had rosied up the cheeks, given a light blue haze to some parts of the clothing, and added the most diminutive glints of white to the flower petals in the background. All so subtle that she had to blink to make sure it wasn’t her imagination trying to brighten the monochromatic scene inside the dark rectangle resting in her hands.

Mara, the woman of an indeterminate age who was looking at another woman, who had been photographed while sleeping, felt uncomfortable as she took it the scene that had been taken from real life and put down on paper. She realized that oddly enough it felt to her that act of taking the resting woman's likeness and putting it where the public could see it had been an invasion of privacy. Obviously, she felt drawn to the person in the picture, almost protective.

The act had also been well planned, because when the picture had been taken it would not have been with a quick aim and shoot. A camera back then - Mara wondered when - had to be properly set up, everything in good focus, sufficient lighting, those types of things. It would not be simple to accomplish one's goal in complete silence, so as not to disturb the woman in repose.

"Didn't they used to use big floodlights?" wondered Mara.

The person in the photograph was enigmatic, which was perhaps the result of the technique used for the portrait, the way the image ultimately transferred to the paper. Enigmatic or somehow unknowable, deep in thought, deeply, almost dangerously, asleep. That gave her a depth, a wisdom, a maturity that belied her smooth brow. Her lightish hair, not tinged by any paintbrush, could have been ashen blond or ashen as in the gray-white ripples left after a bonfire dies down.

Her age was as indeterminate as Mara's.

Mara had often studied the face and torso, so restful, usually from a vertical perspective. This time, as noted previously, she had taken the dusty photo off the wall and was holding it. She could have reached out and touched a cheek. 

For a while, years, Mara had believed the image was a portrait, or better yet, the reproduction of a painting like others here and there around the old house. Yes, it had to be a cheap copy, but that didn’t stop the observer from imagining a story for the scene before her.

Tickets torn in half, memories in bits and pieces

Traces of love, long ago that didn't work out right

Traces of love

The song persisted, begging to be sung, and Mara gradually became convinced that the woman she had before her was suffering the pain of a failed love affair. It was actually quite easy to imagine, in addition, a lover beyond the picture frame. He would also be suffering. The lover might be of almost any age and surely he had been plunged into a profound melancholy because of the termination of their romance. Mara could see their final farewell, demanded by their families. Romeo and Juliet. Like them.

Ribbons from her hair, souvenirs of days together

(Things we used to share, souvenirs of days together)

Mara had been thinking about how it wouldn't do to have the lovers be named Romeo and Juliet like the ones Shakespeare had created. She ultimately decided that the woman’s name would be Lily and that her lover could only be called Travis. 

Travis hears the same song and adds his voice again:

The ring she used to wear, pages from an old love letter

Mara was pleased that she had allowed Travis to have his own voice in the telling of their story, his and Lily's. He had a lovely voice, too. Baritone, she thought.

At the same time, the last line of the song could have been sung by Lily. She might be reflecting on her lost love, how she had removed the ring, while reading a letter from years ago from Travis. Or perhaps she had a letter she had written but had never sent. The possibilities were infinite.

Traces of love, long ago that didn't work out right

Any of the three - Mara, Lily, Travis - could have been singing that line. Perhaps all three of them were, but it was highly unlikely.

The basic reason for denying all three could have sung it was that the song didn’t exist until 1968 or 69. That was probably long after the lovers were gone from this world. That left just Mara, alone, and softly singing her way through the lyrics. 

Traces of lives past, of anonymous lives with only an anonymous photo as testimony to their love. Whose lives?

Travis resembles someone Mara knows. She likes him, likes how he addresses Lily, even if it's just singing the lyrics to a song.

Traces of love, with me tonight 

Travis and Lily both sing, as gently as possible, in case Mara is asleep (which is actually quite silly, if you think about it). The 'me' is universal, or unifying, one on one side of the frame, the other on the other.

I close my eyes and say a prayer 

Lily is Mara's choice for this line, because back then everybody knows (says Mara) that women were traditionally more conforming when it came to religious behavior and beliefs. This is not to say Travis was not a believer.

That in her heart, she'll find a trace of love still there

Travis is not too proud to express his love, to wear his heart on his sleeve. Mara admires him. She is convinced Lily did not reject him, that the problem must have lain with one or both families (note the case of Romeo and Juliet).


Clearly this verse fits all three (Mara, Lily, Travis). Lily's voice is the sweetest, though, and Mara hopes they can repeat the song once more.

Traces of hope in the night that she'll come back and dry...

Travis is definitely weeping now, and his voice is barely audible. Mara needs to listen with great care.

These traces of tears from my eyes

It might seem like Travis should be singing this line, but actually it is Mara, caught up in the plot of her own making. If there is some other cause, we are not aware of it.

Traces of hope in the night that she'll come back and dry

These traces of tears from my eyes 

Mara and Travis are the ones completing the song, while Lily continues like a Sphynx, beautiful, fairy-like, ethereal as ever.


It is nearly time to leave. There is no electricity at the moment, due to a generator meltdown. Mara can and will return tomorrow.

On more than one occasion, she’d asked her mother about the framed image, photograph, print, or whatever it was. Yet her otherwise polite mother had ignored her, or hadn’t heard her. It suddenly occurred to Mara to take the back off the frame in case there were any information, any clue, as to where the picture had come from, who was in it, and why it had what felt like a place of honor in the room.

"You never know if you don't look." Mara was leaving no stone unturned.

After loosening four thin brads from the wood, the thick paper backing, like the old blotting paper for desks, came out easily enough. Mara read:

Lillian May Hill, 1915-1927. Killed in Ithaca, New York, by a drunken driver.

This was written in graphite on the photo back. There was a folded paper, probably a note, adhered to the back as well.

Mara unfolded and read what had been inscribed on the paper. The paper had also been embellished with a pressed pansy and forget-me-nots:

This is Lillian May.

She was my younger sister. I think we were four or five years apart and there was a brother born between us.

I, your mother, who have always acted like the accident was recent, was not acting. It never stopped feeling like just yesterday. I couldn't do anything about it. She was my sister, after all. 

Your grandparents, Mara, who never recovered from the loss of their daughter, were my father and mother. They were moral people who, as devout Methodists, consulted séance leaders and ouija boards in order to locate her. I don't know how I feel about that. Their grief knew no limits and I was sixteen but was not allowed to heal. I tried to protect you from that, just a little.

Mara was glad it was too late for her mother to find out she had failed at stopping the transmission of the quiet keening that had started in 1927 or so. She had never in the world suspected that the female form of indeterminate age that was preserved in the professional photograph was actually her aunt.

She could not connect the photograph with the story her mother had told her about the girls being cut in half by the car. Then she realized what she had imagined was the blanket atop a bed was something else, something for eternal rest.

This is Lillian, whose death at the young age of twelve filled two family albums because their grief couldn't possibly fit in just one. Because of course no other family had lost a child that way. That day they each put one foot in the grave and never took it out.

Mara then recalled another bit of family lore:

Lillian, who was wearing a black raincoat, ugly said her sister, who was Mara’s mother. A black raincoat like a dark cloud coming, even though on that day it was noon and the sky was flooded with light. The superstitious might say the raincoat is to blame for everything. If only it were that easy. The hard thing is understanding why the man was driving top speed through town, on a sunny day, and had driven onto the sidewalk where she and her friend were. Why at that early hour he had been drunk out of his mind.

Lillian, whose lock of hair and funeral rose I inherited, Mara rushed to add, although not knowing the reason for the rush.

July 24, 2021 03:22

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