Fall 2022, Volume 33

Nonfiction by Edward Jackson

This Photo Does Not Exist But I Love To Look At It Often

There is only one photo of my father and me that I know of. I hate it. It was taken about a year before he died. That is not the reason I hate it. I am wearing loose fitting gray pleated pants that when belted give the appearance of parachute pants. To match the gray pants, I am wearing a tabbed white collared shirt with three snaps at the top. They are left unsnapped. The large gray stripe on the shirt moves across my chest and into the spokes of my father’s wheelchair. But it isn’t the matching outfit that I hate. I quite like my Chess King matchy-matchy clothes purchased at the Crossroads Mall. I wanted real parachute pants but my mother did not allow for such a trendy purchase. She knew trendy purchases do not have a long shelf life. A kind salesclerk told me that buying larger sized pants and belting them tight would give the same effect of parachute pants. She was right. The larger sized pants when belted tightly do look a bit like parachute pants in this picture I hate.

The reason I hate this photo isn’t because I am taller than my father. At 5’2 it’s easy to assume I was never going to be taller than anyone in my family. Since he is confined to his wheelchair I have to bend over to be at the same level as him for this candid photo. I am taller than a man who is in a wheelchair. I believe he was about 5"9 but I could be wrong. That does not matter since anyone in a wheelchair is never tall. I think of his height because I cannot comprehend it fully since he was in a wheelchair so long. I do remember him walking though. I think.

I do not hate this photo because I could quantify this as my first foray into looking affectedly gay. I am not simply bending to pose next to him. I have popped my hip and am doing the middle school hey there girl pose. I am also tan. This picture is from one of his last Christmases so that means I am hitting the tanning salon with my sister. No other boy at my school is hitting the tanning salon. I also have copious amounts of Chapstick on. This looks like lip gloss in the photo. While it may appear feminine, I am afflicted with super dry lips where the only relief comes from medicated Chapstick that I apply generously.

I don’t hate this photo because it’s Christmas even though I hate Christmas. My father came to this home twice a year for visits. He never lived in this home. He was moved to a nursing home for skilled care when I was seven. My mother sometimes sold homes to pull the equity to get out of debt. I cannot confirm, but the financial issues of that time may have stemmed from his medical bills. I assume my father hated this home he visited twice a year since he never lived in it. To him, it may have represented some self-imposed culpability since the bills were his medical bills. My father had to be transported to these visits by an ambulance. While I am unsure what an ambulance transport in the 1980s cost, I cannot imagine it was cheap or covered by insurance. That is why it happened so rarely. Christmas should have been happy. Instead, it was a reminder that he didn’t leave that nursing home but a few times a year.

I do not hate this photo because of my father’s lack of a smile. His neurological disease made facial movements laborious his last years of life. I often look at other photos of him when he was younger and admire his smile. It was kind and authentic. He seemed to always be smiling in my memories, but that can be a trick I play on myself since people generally smile for photos and most of my memories aren’t real memories, but memories of looking at photos. Regardless, I choose to remember the things I have no memory of about him as a person this way. Smiling all the time even without a camera. In my memories that are made up, he is always smiling. It may just be the truth, but there is no one left to ask in his family to confirm.

In this photo of me and my father it is his last year of life. That smile message from the brain must take many detours along the damaged nerves to actually reach the facial muscles to perform the function the brain demanded. It made a smile near impossible if I recall correctly. I have little memory of him ever smiling in my interactions with him. I cannot imagine inhabiting a body that would be exhausted after a smile. He always looked exhausted those last years of his life.

None of these are reasons I hate this photo. I hate it because it is the only one of just him and me. I fully realize that I am lucky to have had a relationship with my father, albeit short in years. I have taught countless kids who did not have any interaction with their fathers. My short thirteen years of knowing my father was far longer than so many of my students. Nonetheless, I hate this photo and do not display it in my home. I hate that it is the only one of him and me and is a symbol of how little I knew him.

 My husband’s mother recently sent him a photo album full of childhood photos. So many of just him and his father. I look at my husband’s photos of him and his father with envy. They are happy times. His father holding him as a baby. Fishing together. Playing in the snow together. Wearing matching suits at Easter. And they smile in unison. I see my husband’s smile in his father’s smile. I wonder if my smile is like my father’s. I think of quantifying how many photos my husband has of just him and his father because I like counting and knowing exact numbers. In the end though, any number over one is larger so there truly is no reason to torture myself with this quantifying act to prove some point I had it harder.

There is another picture of my father and me that I see in my head. I love looking at this photo in my mind. I appear to be about four or five. My father is not sitting in his wheelchair, but in his mustard yellow recliner made of corduroy fabric. His legs are covered with a knitted blanket with green and yellow flowers on it that my mother’s mother made. He always had a blanket covering his legs. I am unsure if the lack of mobility made his legs tinier than normal or if he was always cold in his legs since he didn’t use them. I cannot remember his legs well, but I know that they were covered in thick, black hairs, a trait I hold as well. I can sometimes see the hairs poking out of the bottom of his pajamas, and that is because he wore pajamas all day long. I think about this minor physical feature on myself as my leg hair has begun to become patchy with age. I make jokes about Rogaine for hair leg loss and wonder why this didn’t happen to my father. I do not remember his leg hair becoming patchy. That is because I am older than he was when he died. As I often feel I’ve lived a life unfinished, I cannot imagine how he felt trapped in his body that couldn’t move much after the age of thirty. Did he feel he was living a life unfinished?

In this picture I can see in my head he has on thick black glasses and is looking down smiling. I wear those same style frames most days on my face. They look better on him as he has a crew cut in this photo in my head. These were the days his disease didn’t impact smiles, only mobility. I think a lot about glasses on him. In all the photos of my dad before the Multiple Sclerosis had won the war in his body, he has on his glasses. But in any photo after I was born, when the war was lost, he never has on his glasses. I have the same eyesight as him. It is poor and gets worse with age. I often get lost in the finer points of things when I look at photos. I think about this facial detail that disappeared off his face with age. Glasses. They help us see clearly. Did he not want to see the world clearly after he lost the body battle to MS?

In this photo in my head he is looking down on me and smiling that kind smile. I’ve been told I was unexpected. While I came a number of years after my next sibling, my mother said that pleased him. She said he loved having children. She tells me today that is the reason I carry his name. That is not what she used to tell me why I was named after him in the past. I have several versions of a story regarding my name.

In this photo in my head I am on the living room floor with a number of 45 records scattered around me and I am holding one up in my hand at him. I will assume it is a Johnny Cash 45 as he loved the singer.

I am at my mom’s searching for this photo that I can see so clearly in my head.

“You were making a playlist,” I’m told when I describe this photo to a sibling.

“What do you mean a playlist?” I ask.

“The stereo could stack 45s. You were insane about putting songs in the right order and would constantly reshuffle them before stacking them.”

“I don’t get it.”

“You could stack like ten or fifteen 45s and after one played, the arm holding the needle would retract and drop the next one,” my sibling tells me. “You were making playlists before anyone else did. You don’t remember?”

“No. I don’t.”

“Seems if anyone should remember a giant wood encased stereo it’s you. You know you used to make CDs for people but you only put music you love on it. You don’t put music that you know the person you’re giving it to loves.”

This is all true. I don’t know why I cannot remember a piece of furniture that I should. I love music and stereos. It is also true that I love making mix tapes and burned CDs. However, I hate playlists since they show no work, and cannot be wrapped as gifts to give to someone.

I love this photo I remember in my head but cannot find. I love the thought of me inventing the idea of playlists at the age of four and my father smiling about this. I have a strong sense that it most likely took hours of me playing and reshuffling these 45’s and my father must have been a patient man who understood his son was odd and craved order. I’m not sure that is fully true though as I have no recollection of his behavior to attest to his ability to be patient. I’m guessing the disease and wheelchair forced patience on him if he didn’t have it naturally.

It is true though that I do not put music on playlists I know the person loves. I want to expose them to music I love and force them to love it too. Therefore, I’m probably not holding a Johnny Cash 45 in my imaginary photo in my head. I am probably holding my aunt’s Beatles or Beach Boys records that I acquired when she moved. The 45 I am holding might have been an Osmond’s record though as I gravitated to their melodies and harmonizing as a child. I still have all of these 45 records today, almost 45 years after this photo would have been taken. When this photo should have been taken. I wish this photo had been taken.

I describe this photo to my mother while I am visiting. I tell her it is printed on a square shaped photo paper indicating it was very 1970s and there is a white date in the lower right corner. This was a common occurrence when getting your photos processed at the Ben Franklin dime store near our home. It is faded with a yellowed/brownish cast on it. My details of his recliner and the knitted blanket are spot on. I describe the carpet and the couch I see in my head in this photo. I have often asked my mother to go through her photos to find it, to find any photo of just me and my dad. She can never find a photo that is just him and me. As an act of consolation she scans posed family photos and sends them to me. I do not like these photos so much for what they represent. All family portraits are staged and never represent a moment captured in time. Instead, they represent what families want to present to the outside world, to put on a Christmas card, to post on Facebook.

“I don’t know,” I say to myself. “Maybe you just made this photo up.”

I say this when I go through the occasional ritual where I unload everything in my home that may contain pictures and touch each one in hopes this imagined photo may be stuck behind another. There are boxes and boxes of photos in my home. Some in shoe boxes loosely, others in photo albums. I take apart all frames in hopes this picture is behind another and in a drunken state I may have changed it out. Off and on for decades at random stressful times in my life I’ve laboriously looked for this photo that does not exist.

Sometimes I take those staged, posed pictures and try to crop around everyone else in hopes of capturing just my father and me, but it never works. There are always arms and legs that are impossible to crop out. Years ago I found our old 8MM home movies in my mother’s basement and had them transferred to a digital file. I remember waiting for two weeks with high hopes there would be scenes of just my father and me that I could screen shot and frame. But of the dozen or so reels, I am in only one, and I do not interact with him. However, true to form, I am playing new records and slapping my sister’s arm away when she tries to change the song. Of course, the only moments of me as a child on any film involve me playing records. I hate these old 8MM films of my family.

I am an exaggerator by nature, I am an embellisher of stories, so this photo probably never happened. I surely created it out of some need to know him. I didn’t really know my father and I crave to know who he was. But if this photo never existed I do not care. I love it. I love this photo in my head that I see of my father and me. It is the kind of photo that should have been taken of us. It should be framed in my home and placed in the study on the built-in bookshelves next to my husband’s pictures of him and his father, a father he lost very early in his life as well. This photo may not have ever existed, but I can see it clearly in my head and I hold it close to my heart because it is better than the only photo of my father and me that actually exists that I hate for so many reasons.



Author's Father




BIO: Edward Jackson attended Western Michigan University (BA), Aquinas College (M.Ed.), University of Georgia (Ed.S.) and Youngstown State University (MFA). He was a teacher and librarian for over twenty years. He has published short stories in DM Du Jour, Salmon Creek Review, Coffin Bell, and Ethel Magazine. He has also published as essays in The Gay & Lesbian Review, The Adirondack Review and The Atlanta Journal Constitution. He lives in Greenville, PA with his husband.