Every Picture Tells a Story

 Every Picture Tells a Story is a short work of fiction written with the spirit of family and Thanksgiving in mind. The old adage you can pick your friends but not your relatives has a grain of truth.

I found two old black and white photos tucked in the top drawer of my Aunt Mary’s bedroom dresser. Mama and I went over to her apartment to clean out her things the week after she passed. Her daughter wasn’t up for the task, and the landlord at the housing complex where she lived wanted her place empty. He’d scheduled a new tenant to move in on the first of the month. It didn’t help matters that my aunt was behind on her rent.

(Every Picture Tells a Story Continued.)

The smell of lilacs filled the room as soon as I opened the drawer. The pictures hidden beneath her old slips, granny panties, and tattered bras caught my attention. The faded photographs felt brittle under my fingertips when I gathered them into my hand. I knew I was invading her privacy, but I could tell the old pictures were important pieces of family history.

My Aunt Mary didn’t have much in the way of worldly goods when she died. Uncle Earl was a notorious alcoholic, drinking up every penny he ever made working at the steel mill. The only memories I have of Aunt Mary’s husband consisted of him sitting at her kitchen table, talking to ghosts from his past. These animated conversations with people who weren’t in the room gave me a weird feeling because it was as if he believed the phantoms of his imagination were sitting in the chairs next to him.

(Every Picture Tells a Story Continued.)

My aunt painted his bedroom fire engine red, not as a home décor plan gone wrong, but to remind him of the eternity he was likely to spend in hell. She was convinced he’d skip purgatory and move right into the ring of fire reserved for the unrepentant. Every day she’d cross the street to St. Pats and make her confession, but she never repainted the room.

Earl lost his pension when the mill closed, and the executives ran off with their employee’s retirement fund. The realization everything he worked for was gone took a toll on him. He died of a heart attack the night after hearing about the mill closing in the room my aunt painted red.

Not long after her husband died, Mary moved into the outdated, tiny apartment.  She seemed happy to be away from her house with the bad memories and the red room where Earl died.

(Every Picture Tells a Story Continued.)  

The somber faces of a man and a woman stared back at me from the first black and white photograph I found. The expressions they wore made them look harsh. The woman in the picture held a purse in her clasp hands, and the suit the older man wore looked homemade.

The couple reminded me of the famous picture created by Grant Wood, American Gothic. Only this couple was standing in what looked like a wooded graveyard with a clothesline strung over a row of tombstones. Quilts sewed in old-fashioned patterns stretched across the line.

The ground littered by piles of dried up leaves and the nakedness of the trees behind the man and woman suggested fall as the season when a photographer snapped the photo.

When I turned the antique-looking picture over, I read Thanksgiving 1894 written on the backside of the yellowed paper. What sort of people would spend Thanksgiving in a graveyard? The old photo proved I came from people with a morbid, dark side.

   I moved into the living room where my Mama was boxing up My Aunt Mary’s belongings. I tapped her on the shoulder and waited for her to look me in the face. “Who are these people?” I asked.

     “Where did you find this picture?”

   “In Aunt Mary’s underwear drawer,” I said loud enough for Mama’s hearing aide to pick up my voice.

   “I wondered where that picture went. It’s the only evidence those two ever lived. That’s Ernest and Edna Pyle. They look harmless enough, but they weren’t. They were meaner than rattlesnakes and deadlier than the venom from the bite.

Both of them were buried in this graveyard out at their place in less than a year next to the rest of their gang. They lynched Earnest after he shot the Methodist preacher during a horse theft from the livery stable in downtown Tecumseh. Edna died later that spring during a robbery. She dressed up as a man every time the gang robbed a bank. The sheriff shot Edna dead in the middle of the street. It turns out she was the leader of the gang.”

   “How are these people related to me,” I asked. My hands shook as they held up the photograph to the light. I wanted to read the secrets hidden in the faces of those two desperadoes.

    “They were my great-grandma and pa. I guess that would make them your great greats. It’s rumored they were more ruthless than Bonnie and Clyde. I guess Earnest and Edna didn’t have the same fierce sound, so they never made the papers enough to get famous.”

   “What’s with the quilts?”  I asked.

   “They say Edna used to like to sew when she wasn’t out robbing banks. She must have wanted to show them off since they managed to find a photographer brave enough to come all the way out to their hideout. They probably shot him as soon as he developed the picture.”

    I moved the photograph with the stern-looking man and woman famous for robbing banks behind the second photo I held in my hand. Two couples stood in front of the Tecumseh city courthouse. The men dressed in WWII style military uniforms. A smile of expectancy was plastered on their faces.

They had a close family resemblance and could have been twins. They were at least brothers. The women in the picture held bouquets in their hands. My Aunt Mary stood beside the soldier on the right. I knew the woman with the dark curly hair on the left had to be my mother.

   “What is this?” I asked.

   “It’s your Aunt Mary’s wedding picture. She married Earl the day before he shipped out for the war.”

   “And,” I said. The worried expression on my mother’s face told me she didn’t want to reveal the story behind why she was in the picture. She turned her back to me, the way deaf people do when they don’t want to read your lips any longer. Then, they can make out like they didn’t understand the question you were asking.

It’s an effective way to end an uncomfortable conversation, but I wasn’t about to allow her to get away with avoiding my query. I tapped on her shoulder until she turned to face me. She had tears forming in the corner of her eye. “I know the other woman in the picture is you, but who is the guy. He looks like Earl’s brother, but I never heard anyone ever mention he had one.”

   “The man’s name is Merle. He was Earl’s twin. They both enlisted in the army when the war started. Earl came back, and Merle didn’t. He died overseas. Merle was my first husband. Marry and I married the Sullivan brothers in a double ceremony two days before they shipped out to boot camp. All the girls were marrying their beaus before they left for the war, and it seemed like the right thing to do.”

   A wave of shock surged through my system. The grainy old photo felt like disillusionment underneath my fingers. In all my twenty-seven years, I never suspected my Mama had another man besides my father. Hurt raged inside of me. I couldn’t understand why she never told me about this man. “Did you love him?” I asked.

    Mama decided not to pretend she didn’t understand my question this time. “I don’t know.  The truth is I was still a girl when we got hitched. I don’t think I knew him well enough to know if I loved him. Your Aunt Mary thought it would be a good idea if we married. She told me he’d take care of me when he came back from the war. I never got a chance to find out if she was right.”

 (Every Picture Tells a Story Continued.)

  Mama sat down on the bed and traced the outline of her dead husband’s face on the rigid cardboard picture with her fingers. “Merle’s death was why Earl drank so much. He blamed himself for Merle dying the way he did. It was Earl’s idea to join the army. Merle wanted to go into the navy. They made a deal when they signed up with the army that they would be stationed together.

When the bombs fell out of the sky, Merle pushed his twin out of the way. Mary’s husband brought back a lot of guilt with him when he came home from the war. After Earl had a few drinks, Merle was the ghost he talked to every day at Mary’s kitchen table.”

   Tears streamed down my mama’s face. I knew I should leave the subject alone, but there was one more question I needed an answer to before the conversation ended. I waited until she looked me in the face before I opened my mouth.  “Are you sorry he died? Do you wish your life had turned out different?”

   “I’m glad things are the way they are. If Merle had come back from the war, I never would have had you and Patrick. The two of you are the best part of me. Chances are he would have ended up just like Earl. I would have spent my old age watching him talk to ghosts at my kitchen table. I always knew there was something wrong with the Sullivan boys.”

(Every Picture Tells a Story Continued.)  

Mama stood up from the bed and went to work sorting through the rest of my Aunt Mary’s things. We never found anything worth selling to cover Aunt Mary’s funeral costs. Mama said Earl must have pawned the valuables for drink money. My cousin Fawn would only inherit junk from her parents. We carried three cardboard boxes out of the building and loaded them into my car. Mama decided to donate the furniture and Aunt Mary’s old clothes to a local charity.

I noticed Mama had tucked the picture of her dead husband into her coat pocket. We drove to her house in silence. A sad look appeared on her face when she waved goodbye to me from her front porch. I dropped what little items we salvaged off at Fawn’s house before I called it a day.

(Every Picture Tells a Story Continued.)   

Every picture tells a story. There are times when a photograph screams louder than words.  After I dropped Mama off at her house, I thought about the secrets I’d discovered tucked away in my aunt’s belongings. The family matriarch, who was the head of a gang of bank robbers and was a needle artist who hung quilts in a graveyard on a long-ago Thanksgiving Day, a grandfather who shot a Methodist preacher, and was hung for a horse thief, and there was the secret of my mother’s dead soldier husband.

I could understand why my cousin Fawn didn’t want anything to do with cleaning out her mother’s things. She must have guessed there were secrets buried somewhere in the items my aunt left behind. I wondered about what family mysteries remain for me to uncover when I take the job of cleaning out Mama’s things after she passes.  I think I’ll give Patrick the job. I’m not up for any more surprises regarding our family’s dirty laundry.

Who is Molly Shea?

Molly Shea is an accomplished fictional short story writer from Indiana, who writes short stories and novels about a fictional town called Tecumseh.  To read more of her short stories and adventures click here.

Be sure to follow Molly on Twitter!

Published by henhouselady

I am the author of Saving the Hen House. I didn't know when I started it would turn into a series. I love to ride motorcycles, the blues, my family, and going on adventures. This old hen rocks.

3 thoughts on “Every Picture Tells a Story

  1. If we took the time to really look at a photograph, the wonders we would learn are infinite. We’ve been so spoiled seeing so many pictures all the time, that many of us don’t even stop to even think about what is being seen. Me being a photographer, admires every picture I see and the one you showed here, Molly, has such life in it. Thank you for taking the time to write this story. God bless you! xo

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