First Picture: My father, from his high school yearbook, 1964
I found this photograph in an online archive when searching for my biological father several years ago. Until then, I didn’t know who he was, had never seen him before, had never even heard his name in conversation. But here he is, in a group photograph for the Hi-Y Club; he’s standing on the far right, taller than all the other boys at just over six feet. His head is tilted to the side, he’s wearing a black sweater, and he’s smiling jovially. When I show the picture to my wife — speechless and quivering as I point at the computer screen after so many long months of searching — she squints and says, “Wait, is that you?”
Second Picture: My mother, holding me in her lap, 1982
I’m two years old, and in this picture, my mother looks as if she just woke up, though it’s likely early afternoon and I’ve been awake since morning. She does that sometimes. Or otherwise she might leave altogether, not telling anyone where she is for days or weeks at a time. Anyway, we’re sitting in the kitchen, and my mother is still in her nightgown. I’m dressed in a little pair of jeans and a striped shirt with buttons on it, and my shoes are on but already coming untied. We both have the same thick, wavy hair, feathering down over our ears and covering the backs of our necks. My grandmother must have fed me breakfast that morning. But she’s getting tired of taking care of me, of my mother’s inconsistent behavior. Not too long from now, my mother will have to give me up for adoption. And I won’t see her again for almost twenty years.
Third Picture: My father, standing outside, smiling, circa 1965
He would have been about seventeen or so in this picture, and when I look at it, I have to catch myself and remember to breathe. It’s startling how much we look alike; we could almost be the same person. He has his head tilted to the side again, like I do in pictures, self-conscious of our height, but he’s still smiling — the same half-smile as mine. He’s wearing a windbreaker and is standing in front of a building whose partially-visible sign appears to contain the word “geology.” You can make out what looks like the word “institute” just above that. Is he there on a school field trip maybe? Or a special class assignment? Was it a family vacation? I don’t know, but I find myself creating these stories about him to give my own life meaning, to make sense of who I am, where I came from. It’s all I can do at this point.
I received this photograph not long after a paternity test confirmed my father’s and my biological connection, though my mother hadn’t ever mentioned him to me before. In fact, she had told everyone, including me, that another man was my father. And I had met that man, hugged him, spent time with him in his home, took my wife and kids there so they could meet him, too. I had even written a novel about him, imagining what his life had been like, what made him who he was and, as a result, me who I am.
And even though we looked nothing alike and had very little in common, why wouldn’t I have believed what my mother and everyone else told me so many times?
Fourth Picture: My mother, Fort Walton Beach, 1966
The glare from the sun is making her squint at the camera but you can see her hair blowing in the Gulf breeze. She’s wearing a light blue shirt, buttoned up the front, the long white stretch of beach behind her. Even then, she had already started to exhibit signs of mental illness, and she would soon be hospitalized, receive electroshock therapy, though none of that would do much good.
She had trouble in school, trouble at home, but she was incredibly gifted. Her parents sent her off to college to study art. She designed a few ads for local businesses, but then they asked her to leave, called my grandfather at work and told him to come pick her up. So he did.
He got her an apartment in New Orleans, helped her with a job. She worked at Werlein’s Music in the French Quarter for a while. (She was an incredibly gifted pianist, could play Clair de Lune from memory even after not sitting in front of a keyboard for twenty years. And you could tell she really felt each note, what they all meant on a deep, emotional level.)
Then my mother started using drugs; she was promiscuous, and by the time I was conceived in the late 1970s, it was really just anyone’s guess who my father could have been.
Fifth Picture: My father, sitting, 1970s
He’s wearing a light blue leisure suit, leather shoes, and he’s lounging in some sort of wicker canopy chair. His hair is long and thick, like mine, and you can see him smiling beneath his full mustache, the way it makes his eyes squint at the camera. He looks happy.
And although this picture was taken in a part of the country where my mother had never even been before — the place near where my father was born and raised, and where almost everyone in his family still lives — it starts to make sense when I learn that his job in sales took him all over America, as far as Houston, Texas, even, where he lived for a while in the late 70s and drove every so often to New Orleans for an occasional long weekend in the French Quarter. He loved music and art and good food, books. And he still does. Just like me.
Sixth Picture: My mother and me, in the hospital, 2018
It’s my thirty-eighth birthday, and I haven’t seen my mother in five years. But I get a call saying that she is sick, really sick, and so I take my wife and kids up to Meridian, Mississippi, to visit her in the hospital.
And it’s like no time has passed between us, just like the first day we met, when I was twenty. I remember that she had put her hands on my face, feeling all the contours and lines of my nose, my chin, my mouth, my ears and eyes. I let her do it, too. She later told me that she had nightmares all her life that someone was pulling me from her arms, and even though she screamed and cried and begged them to let me go, she would always wake up empty-handed.
“You ought to take a picture with me, David,” she says now. “It’ll probably be the last one you get.”
My mother’s always been to the point like that. She used to like to say that she was “blunt,” seemed proud of that fact.
“You can put it on Facebook,” she says. “I don’t really care.”
My mother lived mostly off-the-grid in a rundown house in Mississippi: no TV, no car, just a bunch of old mildewed books and newspapers and magazines, so I don’t know how she even knows what Facebook is, but that’s my mother: Full of mysteries and surprises.
So I stand next to where she lay in the hospital bed, plastic tubes coming from her side, a blood pressure cuff inflating and deflating against the flaked skin of her arm, producing red and green numbers on a black screen beside where I’m crouching next to her — a constant beep and hiss signaling the sounds of her life — and then I lean down close so my daughter can take a picture of us together.
My mother finally tells me happy birthday before we all have to leave a few hours later.
Seventh Picture: My father and me, in my kitchen, 2019
There’s a birthday cake in front of us. I’m turning thirty-nine and in four days, my father will be seventy-one. It’s the first birthday we’ve spent together like this. The first birthday we’ve spent together in our entire lives. Until just a short time ago, neither one of us knew the other existed.
But just yesterday, he flew down with his partner to meet my family and me. And we’ll end up taking a lot more pictures together like this; in a few months, when we go to visit him at his home, which is over a thousand miles away from where I was born and was raised by a family who wasn’t my own, we’ll take plenty more. I’ll keep them all in a photo album. It’s the only way to make up for almost forty years of lost time, to preserve something of our relationship for my own kids one day. And for myself, of course. It’s something tangible so that we’ll all have a story to tell. Stories like this are so important: they can offer a faith in the human will to connect and to love.
Six months before this picture was taken, my mother passed away. She never knew that I found my father, and I wonder what she would think about all of this now. Would she be sad, embarrassed, happy? I have to be honest and say that I don’t really know the answer to that question.
Eighth Picture: My mother, my father, and me, standing outside, 1990
This is a picture that doesn’t exist: it’s of me, my mother, and my father, all together. The three of us. Maybe we’re all smiling, maybe they’re holding hands — my parents — and we’re standing in a nice yard, in front of a nice house, and there’s a dog in it, too. Why not? I’m ten years old. Younger than my own kids are now.
Of course, I’m imagining these things.
The clouds are thick and full overhead, and all the shadows and light are so remarkable that the picture comes out perfect. It’s one of those rare moments, the kind you would frame and put on a shelf. It’s a photograph that people would ask you about.
“Is this you?” they’d say, lifting the picture up to examine it, touching the glass with their finger.
“Yeah,” you’d say. “That was a while ago though.” And you’d think: Jesus, time flies.
“Wow,” they’d say. “I can’t believe how much you look like your parents.”
Or something to that effect.
“I know,” you’d say. “It’s incredible, isn’t it?”
Then they’d put the picture down on the shelf and move on to something else in your house, this place you’ve worked so hard to make for your family.
But you might stay behind for a second longer though. Look at the photograph again, notice a glint of light in the frame that you hadn’t caught until now — how it makes everything seem almost real for a minute. Alive.