There is a photo that I discovered a couple of years ago and immediately I put it on the refrigerator so I’d never forget who I am. Who I really am.
It is a color photo made with a Kodak Instamatic camera.
Remember those? The little silver box with a flash cube that snapped on top. I still have one of those sparkly cubes.
That summer I was 15. I had discovered my first love and was reading “In Cold Blood”, the classic by Truman Capote. I recall most summers by the books I read. My ninth-grade English teacher, Mr. Hendricks, was in the book. When the Clutter family weren’t at church in Garden City, Kansas, he and the sheriff had gone to check on them. What they discovered became known as the most notorious murders of the 20th Century.
Thank goodness for that Kodak moment. It captured the essence of who I am. Of the sense of place that firmly grounds me.
What brings tears to my eyes is the delighted happiness that shines in that photo.
I am sitting in an old, gray rocker built and caned many years earlier by my grandfather. There, on a ragged porch that sighed visibly with the weariness of its years, I am holding my 2-year-old niece, Nicole. Behind us is the tarpaper of the mountain shack that my grandparents called home. It had a wood burning pot belly stove, two bedrooms in which seven people slept, and no running water.
In a folding chair behind my left shoulder is my precious, simple minded Aunt Bessie. Rheumatic fever at the age of 3 had stopped her intellectual development. She dipped snuff and always had Baby Ruth candy bars hidden somewhere. She was seriously diabetic, but she couldn’t resist a Baby Ruth. This love of candy would eventually lead to a leg amputation and a slow, painful death.
But on that day. On THAT day, Aunt Bessie smiled broadly despite the snuff in her lip. She wore a polyester, flowered dress – a Sunday- go-to-meeting-dress—and flat black shoes. She had little money but she dressed her best for the Lord.
Nicole, the baby that she was, is giggling and I am smiling like the happiest girl in the world.
Because, back then, on that day in the late 1970s, I was happy. No one I loved had died. The word “sorrow” was not yet in my vocabulary. In front of me, life sprawled ahead. I only expected what my parents had – marriage, children, a small house, a steady job, and regular appearances at church.
Nicole was a child, in a bubble of happiness, and Aunt Bessie sweetly accepted whatever came along. Sometimes, I think of what it must have been like in that little tin roof, four-room house, especially when the flu came and they had to run through the frostbitten night, down a beaten path, to the outhouse.
I think, sometimes, of the frigid winter mornings when they awoke, snuggled under quilts they had sewn by hand, and had to face another day of hardship – slopping the hogs, gathering the eggs, milking the cow. But then, I remind myself: They knew no better. Buried deep in the Appalachians, they had as much as anyone else. And they all shared the Lord which pulled them through.
It never occurred to me that my life would be grander. That I would experience excitement, stand on the sidelines of some of life’s most historic moments, call famous people “dear friends”, and say a prayer over the dying body of a star actress I had watched on television every week. And that I would pray over her grave.
Aunt Bessie has gone home to Jesus. Nicole, married with five children, is still joyous. And me?
I’m happy and blessed. But too much sorrow and loss have come and gone. That kind of innocent smile is just a Kodak memory.
Ronda Rich is the best-selling author of the new novel “ST.
SIMONS ISLAND: A Stella Bankwell Mystery.” Visit www.rondarich. com to sign up for her free weekly newsletter.