The faces stare out at me from the big red scrapbook, faces of people no longer alive but who formed my history and paved my way into the world. I search for features that resemble my own and marvel at how older relatives looked before I ever saw them. Each recognized face summons memories, torn from the passing of time into segments, like a journal with pages missing.
With a sense of eerie sadness, I touch my grandmother’s name.
Mary Agnes Tierney. 1880-1960. I knew nothing about her life as a little girl or a young bride, although I know she was those things. I knew her only as my mother’s mother and half the team of Grandma and Grandpa.
It seems like another lifetime when my brother Tim and I stood watching for their little blue car to turn into the driveway, then bounding out the door and across the huge yard when they arrived. Grandma struggled out of the passenger’s side, handing Grandpa her customary pot of chicken and dumplings so she could hug everyone. She was short and fat and always laughing. Despite her girth, she liked to boast of touching her toes ten times every night and ten times again in the morning. I even saw her do it, when I spent a two-week vacation with them in Steubenville each summer, staring in wonder as she reached the floor around that huge protuberance.
Grandpa was as slight as she was rotund, speaking softly with a touch of brogue from his early days in Ireland. He had an impish grin and a snow-white crew cut. They were both white-haired by the time I was born in 1940, but sturdy enough to make the trip to our house in Western Pennsylvania until we moved away just after my ninth birthday.
In a dresser drawer I have treasured snapshots of them, standing among various family members, interspersed with their four daughters. Their third is my mother, although at this time she has not yet garnered that title. She is “daughter,” “graduate,” “girlfriend,” standing next to her football-hero boyfriend. One hand clutches his arm; the other rests on her hip. They smile. They look confident, satisfied, twenties trendy. It’s their heyday. They feel no connection to the future long time ago they now comprise.
For some reason, they didn’t marry.
Standing on the end is Grandma’s sister, Elizabeth, the family spinster, for whom my mother was named. Old and bent, she was known to us as “Aunt Lizzie,” her claim to fame mixing up everyone’s names. “Uh, Robert, uh, Gerry, uh, Martin,” went the litany, until she reached the desired subject. She lived in a nearby town with a 90-something widow named “Mrs. Stratton.” My one obligatory night with them in that mausoleum of a house left me dark with depression and eager to get back to Grandma’s to finish my vacation. There I had cousins next door to play with, and I could jaunt down the hill to Grandpa’s grocery store, where he let me pick out several of the penny candies behind the counter.
My mother wrote me a letter once when I was in Steubenville, a yellowed surprise sent to me recently by an aunt I never see. “We all miss you, even Timmy,” it says, the s’s smudged on the old manual typewriter, evidence of a life once lived. “I have no one to shuffle the cushions or rid up the books and papers, or anyone’s hair to braid.” She thanked me for the card Grandma had helped me send her in honor of her 38th birthday. There was no way for us to know it would be her last, that the smiling faces of those surrounding her in the photographs would turn tearful at her death in just three months.
Aunt Lizzie would tell me in a letter years later of Grandma’s abrupt telephone announcement at one in the morning, “Betty’s dead,” following the hit-and-run accident in front of our house at midnight. “Your grandparents never forgave your mother for marrying your dad,” she wrote, a startling tidbit of family dynamics of which I had never been privy. Grandma’s grief held an angry tone. She told me I shouldn’t miss Pennsylvania. “That’s where you lost your mother, after all,” she scolded, hearing me rhapsodize about the home I’d just left. We’d stopped to see her and Grandpa on our way to Akron, where my dad was dropping me off to live with my mother’s sister, Mary, for a while, before taking Tim and me to Kentucky to start a new life.
Grandma would live another eleven years. Tim and I drove to Steubenville when we heard she was dying, not arriving in time to say good-bye. “She’d hoped to see that baby,” Grandpa told me, referring to my three-month-old daughter, who made the trip with us. Peering into Grandma’s casket, I noted that she was slimmer and that her white hair had turned gray, but that the intervening ten years had dulled my image of her features. She’d seemed almost irrelevant during my acquisition of a second mother and additional siblings resulting from my dad’s new marriage. I gave scant thought to her husky laughter, the drumming of her fingers on the table when she played cards with my parents, her tearful moaning at my mother’s funeral. When word came in my twenties that Aunt Lizzie had died, then Grandpa, I thought little of it. Life went on. New concerns took precedence. New faces obliterated the old—for a time.
Now I stare longingly at crusty black and white photos, and the memories rush back, fighting for their importance over the matters of today. They run through my mind in scattered vignettes, like dated talkies with speckled gaps. I strain to fill in the spaces. I listen intently, hoping to recall their voices. They were never less important, just lying dormant until my harrowed dreams merged the past with the present and the future. I, too, will one day be a name on a list, a face on a photograph, pointed to by my children’s children.
“That was my grandma,” they might say. “She turned cartwheels and loved cats and dogs. She liked to pick objects out of clouds.” They’ll look at me as a young girl and marvel at how I changed into an old woman. They’ll discuss my life and my death long before they’ve realized their own mortality. My name and face will connect them to a past they never knew, one I scarcely had time to know myself. I embrace it now, reluctantly mindful of my place in the long ago of tomorrow.