Discovering Papa

By Connie Phlipot

My mom used to say that any piece of paper that entered her mother’s house never left it.  She carried on that tradition — out of respect for my grandmother or more likely from inertia.  Envelopes of grocery store slips, never-used coupons for canned tomatoes, to-do lists.  Bills marked “Paid” or “need to call about.”

Sneezing from dust particles, occasionally holding back a tear when I came upon something that reminded me too deeply of my mother, like a note she had placed in my third grade lunch box, “Good luck on the math test,” I sorted through the contents of the boxes she had left behind.  I hoped to find insightful letters, old documents, even handfuls of dollar bills.  But most of her life’s detritus went into the toss or shred pile. 

A heavy manilla envelope, a strong twine wrapped around it, was wedged along the side of one of the boxes filled with old medical statements.  The envelope was slightly ripped at the bottom,  exposing the corner of a Polaroid photo.

Other boxes had been filled with photographs — mostly faded colored ones of me skipping rope or standing in front of the Christmas tree.  Chronicling the growing-up years.  I had put them in some sort of chronological order, tossing the many duplicates and the out-of-focus prints and tried to figure out who were all the unidentified people —  cousins, aunts, my mother’s friends?  The collection was uniquely devoid of males.  No fathers, no grandfathers, no uncles, nor male cousins.

I tore opened the manilla envelope in one quick pull sending black and white photos scampering across my lap.  These were older than my mother’s other collections.  No colored pictures among them.  Some were grainy, out-of-focus, but others were sharp, well-defined as if developed by an artist or at least a very competent amateur.  I started to sort them as I had the other photos, but I didn’t have a methodology.  None of the people were familiar, nor were the landscapes, the times or the mood.  They weren’t typical family pictures, Kodak moments of joy and growth.  I examined them more closely looking for a common element.  People featured in some of them, others were human-less shots of grimly grey country scenes or uncared-for buildings.  Even the human figures were shot from afar.  I squinted at these.  Surely I would know someone unless my mother had somehow gotten hold of someone else’s memories.

After putting the photos of people in one pile —  I had about 25 of them— I stopped, realizing they were all of men or young boys.  Like a companion piece to the other pictures.  I randomly picked out one of these from the middle, like choosing a card from the deck.  A young man in his twenties with wavy dark hair, slight, of average or slightly short stature, standing by a car, one hand on his hip.  It was familiar, though I had never seen this man or this car.

I crossed the room to pick up a previously-sorted box of my mother’s photos and quickly found one of me, circa 1965.  I was standing by our brand new Oldsmobile, one hand on my hip, my head of curly light brown hair tilted to look at the photographer.  I set it beside the photo of the male.  Different eyes, nose.  His were hooded, mine nearly lidless like my mother’s.  His nose was strong, almost Roman, mine tended to the pugness of my mother’s family.  But the mouths — both turned up slightly at the ends as if they were laughing inside at a joke only they understood.  I turned over the photo.  Nothing written on it, except the printing date.  1951.

I had never seen a photo of my father.  As a child I persisted in believing the fairy tale myths of stork midwives and cabbage patch births long after other children had abandoned them because I had no proof that any individual other than my mother had been involved in my creation.  At some point, when I finally faced biological realities, she explained that my father had “passed away” unexpectedly, when she was four months pregnant.  No emotion, no comment, no details.  That was that.  And my childhood intuition told me not to pursue the topic.

Nonetheless, I knew this was my father.  I was fired up with a desire to find more clues in this trove of memorabilia.  There were several other photos of my father;  all light, inconsequential like this one — posing in front of a statue, patting a dog, opening a door.  In only one, he stood next to another man — a man dressed in the wide, pleated pants of the day, a fedora hat giving him the look of a gangster and hiding his face from my scrutiny.  Could this be his father?  The difference in age was about right and they posed with the casual familiarity of two close relatives.

This pile didn’t provide any more information, so I picked up those of buildings and landscapes.  Rolling hills, in front of mountains, possibly snow capped or maybe just the fading of the photographs.  Two specks in the foreground.  I picked up a magnifying glass from the box holding my mom’s desk supplies.  The specks were people, possibly in uniform.  I turned the photo over — ATLAS.  The Atlas mountains?  I dug deep in the pile.  An airplane, WWII vintage, not a fighter plane.  Again a speck beside it in uniform.  A series of numbers and letters on the back might have been a model number. 

A photo of a bazaar.  Heaps of peppers, brass pots and pans and the first photograph of a woman.  Veiled.

About Connie Phlipot

Connie is a retired U.S. diplomat, who has recently completed a novel based on her grandparents emigration from what is now Belarus.  She is now working on a novel or linked short stories focused on her fascination with Central and Eastern Europe. 

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