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FAMILY PORTRAIT

At the end Pop said he wished he had taken more photographs of us when we were kids. He was a single father with four children and didn’t have time, like people do now, for selfies or snapshots.

As adults, we obliged him. We posed for a family portrait out in the field with a professional photographer. His face was frozen from Parkinson’s, the ancient patriarch. The grandchildren, three of them, wrapped around him, old pros at having their picture taken. My younger brothers were like sentinels on either side. Strong-backed men in their late 40s, garrulous, argumentative, more like Pop than they would have liked, they dared the camera to capture them. I was angry, and I said it was because of these surprise portraits. I went bare-faced, cross-armed, squinting into the ravages of the sun. My sister claimed she couldn’t make the trip at all. She would miss Pop’s birthday this year.

Across the red clay of Georgia, not our home, just where we had found ourselves, what would prove to be an in-between stop for my brother, the artist, eight acres, a vegetable garden in end-of-summer abundance, grapes on trellises, hummingbirds darting from feeder to feeder skimming the August heat, making enough noise for all of us, we had our family portrait taken. The stink of the poultry from the farm next door blew upwind to us, a miasma. Behind us, in the cluttered workshop slumped half-built sculptures of wood and concrete and wire—all
on hold as the artist brother cared for Pop.

The photographer had placed Pop out in the open field on a straw-woven wooden chair, she was going for a Walker Evans effect, she said. I pictured the Great Depression, sharecropper, Appalachia, and none of that was our family, though my Pop’s father was once a chicken farmer in southern New Jersey. That’s another story, one of Jews encouraged to relocate out of the big city in the first half of the twentieth century. Pop had left that chicken farm for good when he was discharged, honorably, from the Army, married our mother, and settled in the Bronx.

No one ever said anything about rural Georgia being in our future, about dispersion, about the ways family’s fissure, but here I was, and I was afraid it would be our last visit with Pop. I had just driven eighteen hours straight from New York City in a car without working air conditioning or radio, and the black and white photographs transformed me into someone I wish I could have been, for a week or two, someone who stood by their Pop and worked their family’s land.

These days, I often wish I could go back to that moment. To tell Pop that I would write about him—he always thought I would. Many of the stories have been published. CARRY HER HOME, my debut collection, features forty-seven stories. The stories range from flash fiction, fiction under a thousand words, to full-length stories, including an entire section linked from 1960 to present day, and it is largely autobiographical fiction. CARRY HER HOME, won the 2018 Fiction Award from the Washington Writers Publishing House (submissions are open to this venerable regional press through mid-November for poetry and fiction).

Now, you may ask, is the above fiction or truth? Is the story of the “Family Portrait” made up or memoir? It is true. I have photographs to prove it, the last ones we would take of Pop.

If I were to re-write the story as fiction, I would, perhaps, delve deeply into what Pop was thinking. He was propped out in the field in a kitchen chair and was impatient with the photographer futzing with her fancy-schmancy equipment. He didn’t know why his son had to pay someone good money to take a photo of his ugly mug. He didn’t want his kids remembering him as someone who couldn’t smile for a damn picture. If I could only loosen the lines as deep as trenches around my eyes, and smile, would they remember me as a mensch, as someone proud to be their father? If I could raise my hand, will they think I am saying hello or good-bye?

We punctuate our lives with moments, so many captured these days as quick digital images downloaded onto the diaspora of digital platforms. For this writer, however, more is remembered for what is not in the image, for what is absent, for the imagined as well as the reality. I am grateful that those last photographs exist, on a disc, in a drawer somewhere. I am even more grateful that I write stories inspired by the people I cannot forget. I carry those stories home with me. They are photographed onto my heart.

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Caroline Bock’s debut collection of short stories, CARRY HER HOME, won the 2018 Fiction Award from the Washington Writers’ Publishing House and is now available in trade paperback and e-book formats. She is also the author of the critically acclaimed young adult novels: LIE and BEFORE MY EYES from St. Martin’s Press. She is lecturer at Marymount University in Arlington, VA and leads writing workshops at the Writer’s Center and Politics & Prose bookstore. She lives in Potomac, MD. More at www.carolinebockauthor.com.