Where is the past? Once a moment passes, we can find it again only in our memory. But what is memory? Clearly it is unreliable and frequently deceptive. It is not a movie that can be seen over and over. Memory is inherently self-serving and always emotional, so much so that the past can only be reimagined and described in ways that are charged with significant emotional content. In other words, the past becomes a story. Sometimes the story has a great deal of truth and psychological resonance. Other times, there is only superficiality, dissonance, and meaninglessness..
These thoughts surface while I examine an antique photograph. There are at least seventy-five people visible in it. A few more women than men. A good many infants and small children. Some adolescents, fewer elderly. A lot of these folks are my relatives. Specifically, it depicts part of the extended family of my father’s mother.
It was almost certainly taken in December of 1913. The clothes are appropriate to that era and place (including the white dress my two-year-old father is shown wearing, the common unisex garment for toddlers regardless of gender.) The place is a farmhouse at a crossroads called Bowers Corner. It’s a short walk from here to the village of Rocky Comfort, a stoically named unincorporated township in the extreme southwest corner of Missouri: the Ozarks.
I pause to reflect that, although everyone in the picture is long dead, I knew some of them in life. Though the chronology makes that statement unremarkable in reality, something about it feels peculiar. They’re standing in front of my great-grandparents’ large and well-built house (think how sturdy that front porch roof must have been to hold at least 2,000 lbs. worth of men and boys) at a time when the possibility of anything that could be called a World War hadn’t yet been conceived.
I myself was born three months after Hiroshima and Nagasaki had finally ended the Second World War. That historical distance makes it seem I am looking at something utterly remote, something from a museum’s archives, something unconnected with me.
But I have a profound connection with some of these people. Yes, I knew six or more of them. But, more importantly, I knew stories about them. In fact, I not only knew these stories, but believed I had a special relationship with them. I felt those stories. Some of them I heard in one form or another during the storytellers’ lifetimes. Others I only discovered after their passing. Or rather, at least with some, I discovered the significance of stories already sketchily familiar to me.
In the photo, a 12-year-old girl stands in front of her parents and behind a makeshift table nearly thirty feet long and covered with plates and bowls of food. My grandmother’s youngest sister, Clella, always known in the family as “Cledd” (sometimes, to her annoyance, called “Cleddo” by her brother-in-law, my grandfather).
A later photograph, from 1918, shows Cledd and a dozen other young people; she’s paired with a slightly older boy from Stella, a town barely a mile from Bowers Corner. He looks deeply concerned about something—depressed might be the better word.
As well he might be. Every week thousands of American soldiers his own age are dying on the battlefields of France. He is subject to the draft and might be called for military duty at any moment. After my grandmother’s death, I found a document I still possess. It’s his notice to report to be inducted into the U.S. Army. His report date is November 11, 1918. Armistice Day. They send him back home.
A year or two later he marries Clella, and the couple settle down in the region’s largest city, Joplin. From there, their story fades out for a decade. It eventually resurfaces in 1930. Clella’s husband was named Trent Carey and everyone in her family (apparently addicted to inexplicable nicknames) called him “Teke.”
I completed second grade in 1953. One morning that summer I sat on the floor of our living room in front of the lowest shelf of the bookcase beside the fireplace. This shelf held my hundreds of comic books in two precariously balanced stacks that were hidden from the critical glares of visitors by my father’s easy chair.
“Come on, let’s go!” hollered my father. I had no clue what he meant, so I didn’t respond. He continued to demand I go somewhere, but why? There was no school and it wasn’t Sunday. I had finally concluded that it must one of those dreaded trips to visit some boring relative just as, completely exasperated, Dad sent my mother to talk to me. She confirmed that a visit to “relatives,” that wholly annoying category of people, was indeed in store. But, Mom explained, these relatives lived in the magical, mystical land of “California.” Needless to say, I was all in.
“Better take some funny books with you. We’ll be on the road a long time.”
I grabbed 6 or 8 comics, on the assumption that California was no farther away than Arkansas. As it turned out, we drove for about five days, mostly following Route 66 with a side trip to San Antonio and Villa (now Ciudad) Acuña, Coahuila, Mexico. Finally we reached the land of palm trees, endless streets and boulevards, and permanently blue sky. Dad managed to locate the suburban city of Baldwin Park, our destination. There lived none other than Cledd and Teke.
I had a great time. They had television! And not only that, they rented out their converted garage in the backyard next to the orange tree to a single mom with two kids about my age. And that family had their own TV. I was strictly a radio kid with a mere handful of friends equipped with television, received from faraway places like Tulsa and Kansas City through clouds of what looked like snow. In California, you could imagine you were at the (black-and-white) movies. My Friend Irma, Ed Sullivan, Beany and Cecil, horse racing, everything. Plus, in the outside world, Knotts Berry Farm, the Santa Monica pier, my first escalator ride, Hollywood and Vine. A fabulous vacation.
I saw Cledd only one other time, when she visited Joplin about a dozen years later. Teke never returned until he did so in his coffin to be buried in same cemetery as his wife and all of her family, those seen in that photo and dozens of others.
And I never knew why Teke had so determinedly stayed away from Missouri until he, his wife, and my grandmother were all dead.
The trunk in my grandmother’s attic that yielded Teke’s draft notice also contained documents explaining why he and Cledd wound up in the San Gabriel Valley. There are bills from businesses and dunning letters from lawyers in the Joplin area demanding payments of debts ranging from two or three dollars up to more than twenty. All from 1930 or 31. The ones I have (assuredly not all he received) total several hundred dollars. Probably three months wages in the early Depression years, and it appears that he, like millions of others, had no job. One of the more urgent-sounding letters concerned $50 owing on a late model used car (total purchase price $300). It’s dated April, 1931. It seems that Cledd and Teke had by that time, as so many had done, fled their debts and the general hardships of the pitiless Ozarks for the forgiveness of California. Judging from that middle-class existence I observed in 1953, I’d say they found it.