The last time I saw my father was a week after this photo was taken. My mother had died about a year back. I was too young and hardly remember her face. My brother though, I think he remembers her well. We were raised by our father for a while. He used to read stories to us before we went to bed and he cooked us pancakes in the morning. While he was at work Darlina used to come over. She cleaned our clothes and the house, and cooked dinner. We always ate jam and peanut butter sandwiches for lunch.
I remember Aunt Clara coming over every now and then. She was very tall and looked like a man. Whenever she was at the house, even at that young age, I could tell that her smiles were faked. Her forced sweetness used to nauseate me and the more she smiled the more terrified of her I used to feel.
Aunt Clara and father fought often and loudly whenever she came over. She used to be angry at father because she thought that children needed a mother in their life and that he wasn’t doing such a great job. I remember overhearing that once when they were locked up in father’s study and we were sent to bed early. Father persisted as long as he could. I remember loving him intensely for that because I was always afraid that Aunt Clara might come and live with us forever. To show him, I used to find him reading in his study and clutch to his neck very tightly until he gasped because he couldn’t breathe.
Gradually though, father started to change. He returned early from work one day and locked himself in his study. He emerged for dinner but didn’t laugh at any of our jokes. He also started to get angry much quicker than he used to. He never left the house and his hair was always disheveled and his eyes very red.
When Aunt Clara came over unexpectedly once and saw him like this her face went white at first, then she smiled. It was the first genuine smile I ever saw cracking open her ugly face.
“That’s it Frank! The family will know about this.”
Her feet hadn’t left the threshold and she simply turned and left. I had had no idea what she meant but when I saw father’s reaction I remember feeling suddenly very apprehensive. He was standing in the hall, his hands in his pockets, wearing the calm face he usually did in the first minutes while Aunt Clara was visiting. But when the door closed behind her I remember his face contorting, he raised his hands and pressed them against his cheeks and he fell to the floor crouching. I ran to him thinking he had a tummy ache and I started rubbing his belly. At that he started to cry. I had never seen my father cry. Before that I didn’t even know men cried.
Jimmy, my brother, came and took my hand and he drew me away, “Let’s leave him alone for a while.” I always trusted my brother’s wisdom so I went with him to our bedroom, but I did look back. My father was sitting on the floor, his head hanging between his knees, and he was sobbing.
The next day, father came and woke us up. “I have something special planned for you today.” We got up instantly, ate breakfast and put on the clothes Darlina laid out for us. They were our best Sunday clothes, but it was a Wednesday morning, and I remember thinking how strange that was.
Father took us to the park. He gave us breadcrumbs to feed the ducks with. Then he bought us caramelized apples. He let us soak our hands in the fountain and then took us to a toy shop and we each got to pick one item we wanted. Jimmy chose a whistle and I fell in love with a doll with black, curly her that cried when the dummy was not in her mouth.
We were on our way home when father said, “I have one last thing planned.”
Holding our hands in each of his, father led us to a shop that smelled of mildew. An old man was sitting at the counter, his moustache was bushy and grey. You could hardly see him smile from underneath the hair. Pictures filled the shop; framed and hanging on the walls, filed in albums and just lying loosely around. Father talked with the old man for a while, then the old man said to wait. He went inside a door closed off by a curtain made of beads. He came back out holding a large box in his hand, I remember Jimmy gasping at the sight. I had never seen a photographic camera before.
“Follow me,” said the old man.
“Leave the toys here for now, we’ll get them later,” father said. He took our hands in his again and we left the shop and crossed the street.
“Right there would be fine,” said the man from under his moustache.
Father turned and faced the man, “Stand straight now and look at the camera. Don’t move until the photographer says it is all right.”
I obeyed. The photographer peered into his box, raised an arm in the air and counted to three with his fingers.
We went back to the shop after that. I took my doll back and I remember father telling the man, “Three copies please.”
Life returned back to normal during the following few days until Aunt Clara returned. She packed our bags while father remained shut up in his study. They told me we were going to visit grandma and so I couldn’t understand why Jimmy was crying.
We left in Aunt Clara’s car. Darlina waved at the door and sniffed in a handkerchief. Father did not come to say goodbye, and as I said I never saw him again after that. Mother’s family never spoke to us about him, even when we asked. Eventually Jimmy wouldn’t let me mention our father, even when we were alone.
One day though an envelope arrived in the post. There was no note and no return address, but inside there were two copies of this picture.
This story was triggered by a writing challenge called Weekly Writing Challenge: A Picture is Worth 1,000 Words placed in the following link.