In glowing words I’m trying hard

This time last year I was in New Mexico and we had just opened a cache of family stuff that had been packed away for years.  Not just the photos I keep mentioning, but papers and letters and scrapbooks and notebooks, old receipts,  ration cards, newspaper clippings, jotted notes. Lots of things looked like they could crumble into soft little scraps before I figured out their significance.

I insisted on opening up the boxes in the first place because I was looking for things about my great-grandfather, who was a writer. (He is the boy in this photo. And here is a short biography I wrote for him, on a site I’m slowly building. It should give you some idea why I’m fascinated with the guy.)

I was hoping to find manuscripts. Instead I was flooded with all these other pictures and relics that needed sorting, and it had to be done in the short span of my holiday visit. I would up spending an entire day in a spare room at my dad’s house making piles of photos and trying to figure out who was in each picture. I had a terrible cold that was so bad I lost my voice, and the dust from the boxes felt like gravel in my lungs.  I was overwhelmed and exhausted and more than a little sad to be surrounded by all this family I never knew, whose histories I hadn’t bothered to learn back when there were people around who could tell me about them. And then I kept picking up this thing, this bit of wood:

My great-grandfather Malcolm, living in New York City, had written these wobbly verses and used a heated tool (possibly a small icepick) to burn the letters. In the 1930s he’d devised a hobby where he’d copy antique maps onto wood using the burning tools and Mercurochrome paint. We had couple of the pieces he’d made in our living room when I was growing up. He’d sold a few of them, too. By 1938, though, he was starting to move on to another creative pursuit. He had published his first two stories in the magazine Astounding Science Fiction this year, and he had likely already sold a few others. He was just in time for what is now called the Golden Age of Science Fiction, though he wouldn’t live to see the end of it.

He may have made this card for his wife (who is in the photo here); maybe he made others, too. It wasn’t until I’d picked it up and looked at it for the fifth or sixth time, in the midst of all my desperate sad sorting, that I remembered that it was Christmas Eve. And that my great-grandfather was wishing me a merry Christmas and a happy future.

The Jamesons

I first discovered the photo a year ago, in a trunk in New Mexico when I was visiting my dad for Christmas. It was with hundreds of other photographs—snapshots and portraits and cabinet cards and even daguerrotypes—in a collection I had never seen before, though they were family pictures. I took a stash of the photos back to Chicago with me last December, but this picture stayed behind, and it was only last month that I saw it again when my dad brought it. You can click on it to look closer.

These are the Jamesons. They are my mother’s paternal family, my great-great-grandparents, Ammie and Joe Lee; the boy in the hat is Malcolm, my great-grandfather. The girl at the end is Vida, his sister. They are on the San Antonio River and it is 1893.

In 1893 they are in San Antonio because Joe Lee is the bookkeeper and steward at the Southwest Texas Insane Asylum. They live there, actually, on the asylum grounds in an apartment in the administration building. Other staff members live there, too, including, in 1896, the  superintendent, a Dr. MacGregor and his wife, who will be my other great-grandparents.

Later the Jamesons will move to Austin so that Joe Lee can work in the Capitol as the State Revenue Agent of Texas. Curiously, he will endorse a popular line of adding machines and his name will appear in hundreds of turn-of-the-century magazine advertisements that will come up in a search on Google Books. Thanks to scanned ephemera, his name lives on in a way he hadn’t planned.

In Austin the Jamesons will live in a big house that they do not own, a tall, narrow mansion with ceilings so high that when Vida, age five, leans too far over the stairway banister, she will fall nineteen feet. Somehow she will survive the accident, but die a year and a half later, in 1900, from meningitis. I will find yellowed newspaper clippings, an account of the governor’s wife draping ropes of violets over her casket.

I will at first wonder why Joe Lee left his government job to work for an oil company in Beaumont, Texas, until I figure out the connection to Spindletop, an astonishing geyser of oil that bursts out of the ground in 1901 and begins the modern oil industry. To pursue the opportunity, the family moves to Beaumont, to an address that Google Street View shows as an empty lot now. The address came from newspaper clippings, too, reporting Joe Lee’s death, from typhoid fever, in 1904, at the age of thirty-four.

Joe Lee is buried back in Austin, in a plot with Vida and Ammie, who died much later. This spring I saw their graves and the place where the big house stood across from the Capitol. In a city where I’d never been, in the weedy grass of a cemetery, there were the stones of these people who sort of (for lack of a better word) belonged to me.

This is the story so far. I keep trying (and, I think, failing) to express what it’s like to put together the pieces these people left. For no reason, really, except that the pieces are there, the scrapbooks and the photos and, sometimes, a detail that I remember hearing from my mother or or someone else. There are other pictures, of course, but this one really stays with me. I’m sure part of it is the nature of the photo—posed not as a portrait, but as a moment.  It makes me feel like I’m encountering them in a dream.

I think about how they stopped in the river to take the picture, to look across the water toward the bank, at all of us here on shore.