The Last Known Pictures

Two weeks ago, in my hometown in southwestern Pennsylvania, my father and I let ourselves into my great-uncle’s house to see if we wanted to claim anything before the house is cleared out and sold later this year. My great-uncle hasn’t died; instead, he’s trapped in the netherworld between mental and physical death, no longer himself, gone but not gone, breathing day after day in a world that no longer concerns him in the same way as before. It was strange and sad to be in his house, more acutely him than he is, the meticulous organization in his basement workshop as vibrant a ghost as you’d hope to find. Every item in the house was labeled with black Sharpie — what it was, where it came from. Each drawer in the office and bedroom was tagged with a bit of white paper and a Sharpied description of the contents. A great pile of Sharpies was on the kitchen counter, the permanent ink now permanently out of use.

Sifting through a bureau drawer in the basement, I found a box of photographs, some of which were over a hundred years old. Brittle and discolored but otherwise well preserved, these pictures had no names or dates but were stamped with the name and location of the southwestern-PA photography studios where they were taken. There were no recognizable people in any of these relics, nor was anyone recognizable in the photos from later in the century. These people were not our family. Clues in a brittle yellowed obituary and a few folded baptismal certificates suggested that these photos had belonged to a relative of my great-uncle’s first wife, many decades deceased. A Certificate of Parole we found among the pictures suggested that this stranger’s family tree had branched in wayward directions.

Andrew, flipping through the pile, didn’t pause when a seventies-era photo of a little girl with an old man floated by. “Wait,” I said. “That’s me.” Indeed it was: a stray photo of two-year-old me with my great-grandfather, identifiable only because I was the one looking, able to name the people, time, and place. I don’t know why that picture wound up in this box, with these strangers, but there it was.

Without any actual knowledge of anyone in the other pictures except for the most tenuously suspected filament linking these people to a former spouse, we were free to speculate. Each picture was a story. The women’s poses, their faces; the cars in the background; the men’s work clothes, and uniforms. All told a tale, each one a captured moment in time. Each picture — as they say — worth a thousand words.

And yet these pictures, moldering in a forgotten bureau, were worth nothing at all to anyone, anymore. A few of the more “historical” artifacts — pencilled postcards sent home from Europe during World War II, photos of bombers and trucks — may be worth sending on to the local historical society, or some sort of war-history organization. Or maybe not. The postcards are faded and barely legible. The photos of the army trucks, one with the caption “I sometimes sleep in these,” are blurry. They were someone’s memories of war, but not the sort that lend themselves to broader remembrance, significance, or memorial. They were dashed off, quickly shot, sent home. And when their recipients died, they were passed on and passed down and stored away and forgotten. Even if I Googled the heck out of the family names in the baptismal certificates and obituary and located someone who might not only recognize the people in these pictures but also feel a twinge of familial obligation to take them off my hands, years from now these items will simply be cluttering someone else’s basement bureau drawers, vexing the harried, grieving relatives ultimately responsible for cleaning them out.

They meant so much when they meant something. No more.

The question of worth and meaning changes for me with the very oldest pictures, the ones called “cabinet cards,” a kind of albumen print mounted on card stock that became popular in the 1870s. Their subjects are unidentified and centuries dead. It’s entirely possible that these are the last known pictures of these men and women, even, perhaps, the only pictures of them ever to have existed. I may have been the first person to look at their faces in half a century or more. That gives me an eerie, unsettled feeling, as though I’ve inadvertently stirred, and disturbed, something that had been at rest. It raises questions about the connection between our earthly selves, the images we leave behind, and the spirits we are destined to become. Do photographs serve as a kind of tether, tying us to this earth? Connection — or shackle? I can’t help but imagine the souls long gone waiting for the moment when their final images are destroyed and they’re released, cursing when someone like me comes along and snatches away their chance at freedom.

Or they might be grateful — for a final chance not to be forgotten.

That picture of me with my great-grandfather — a picture that, shuffled and stored away, could save me, a century from now, become my last known picture, when our thousands of digital photos have crashed or become incompatible with new devices; when “the cloud” fizzles; when our failure to actually print out pictures makes our images as perilous as those in the studio portraits fading in that box.

It feels like a responsibility, having these ancient pictures. These people lived in my hometown, made fortunes and mistakes, went about their daily business in buildings that are now falling over or razed into vacant, overgrown lots. But what exactly am I obligated to do? Splash their faces on billboards, imploring passing truckers — Look at these people! Their faces are in my head now, and maybe — most probably — in no one else’s in the world. In conjuring them, I feel a weird intimacy of near-oblivion. I can almost hear them whispering.

So here they are. Look at them. These are almost certainly the last known pictures of these faces. Share the curious burden with me. And welcome the ghosts.

Margo Orlando Littell is the author of the novel Each Vagabond by Name (University of New Orleans Press, 2016).