The picture still stands on my kitchen wall. It was once removed in haste. That was the day when some of those caught in the camera’s gaze were still alive and were coming to pay a visit.
I realized, precious moments before their arrival, that the picture could destroy the fabric of their lives. The picture told no lies. Only some of those who were captured that long ago day would tell the lies.
It started out innocently. It was my grandmother, Peshka, always one to think out of the box, who wanted a photo of her entire family in America. Of course, many were still in Europe, siblings, parents. They were not forgotten but they were not included in the photo.
Of most interest in the picture are the children, the American generation. There is my mother, her features maturing into a lovely woman to be, slim and earnest, about 14 or 15 years old. Sitting near her is her first cousin Ada, just a couple of years younger, already well into adolescence, a pretty young girl. And sitting posed on the floor are Ada’s two much younger brothers, both in short pants. Cute little boys who would grow up to become a judge and a doctor.
The crisis happened about twenty years after the photo was taken. The boy who was to become the doctor grew tall and handsome and fell in love with his bashert. They would get married.
The problem was that Ada had no marital prospects in sight. She was already over 30 and her mother, my great-aunt, could not possibly allow her son to get married before the spinster daughter. My mother had already been married for years by then. What could be done?
Those who reply nothing could be done never knew my great-aunt. Of course something could be done. The truth could just be rearranged. It was a perfect crime. If only there had not been a picture!
The truth is that the picture had long been forgotten except by me. And I, for one, have no clue as to how our household became its resting place. With all of the aunts, uncles and cousins, somehow the one and only copy of that day at the Brooklyn photographer’s became my possession.
And I, realizing its uniqueness, picturing my mother and uncles as young adults, found it precious enough to hang on the wall. Often I would point out the cast of characters to my children, always stopping to relate the anachronism in the making. It was a humorous story. An insight into the way minds were set in the days when revisionist history was really possible. It was family history at its juiciest! And it was proof that one should never totally believe family lore. Never!
So, just what did my great-aunt do? It was simple. She made Ada her second child. The soon-to-be doctor became not only number one son, but also number one child. That fact that, at a minimum, ten years were unaccounted for, did not ruffle my great-aunt at all. She ordained it and so it was.
Eventually Ada too met her bashert. And now you will ask me all the questions for which I have no answers. How far did the lies go? Ada’s young man was much younger than she was and, reportedly, had no clue as to her actual age. So, did she lie on her marriage license?
Did she lie to Social Security?
Did she lie when she gave birth to her two very accomplished daughters, one a professor and one a doctor?
Did her daughters know her actual age? Did her husband ever figure it out?
I told you I didn’t know. I don’t. I only know that she lived a very long life and was apparently untroubled by change in birth order.
And so, it was probably 40 years ago that that side of the family was coming to visit us. Although we’ve moved a few times since that day, the wall arrangement with the photos has stayed the same.
So, I was putting the finishing touches on the lunch, a few moments before the expected arrival, when I gasped. There was the picture. It still stands there now. But, that day I quickly swooped it off the wall, heart pounding, and shoved it into a drawer. Any observant guest might have noticed the slight discoloration of the wall and the picture hook holding up nothing. No one said a word.
The secret remained with me. And with you.