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Capturing a Life in Black and White

My grandmother is dying, and I am making her a photo album

Laura Todd Carns
Jul 16, 2018 · 9 min read
All photos courtesy of author.

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Her stories were of pranks, of games, of children playing among the detritus of a crumbling society, all innocence.

I wanted all of it, fascinated with equal parts awe and horror that my grandmother, who smelled like rich-lady perfume and took me to the Estée Lauder makeup counter when I was nine, was from such a backwards place as Mississippi. A place that was not just poor, but tainted by the legacy of slavery and segregation in a way I found repulsive. But somehow it was also a place of beauty, even in the sweeping cotton fields and stately plantation houses. It was a place that only existed in my imagination in extreme dualities: grandeur and squalor both. No in-betweens.

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Aunt Kathryn under the pecan tree Daddy Dunn planted in Laurel, MS

I needed to give her back her stories, her past.

Later, I ran out for a quick lunch, worrying the whole time that I would come back to the sound of her wail. I returned to find that the nurses had wheeled her down to a common room and she was happily chatting, or to be more precise, flirting, with an elderly gentleman over a cup of goo-thickened coffee. “This coffee is terrible,” she hissed at me. “Can you get me one that doesn’t feel like I’m drinking pudding?” As I undid the wheelchair brake with my toe and turned the chair around to wheel her back to her room, she grabbed my arm with surprising strength. “What time is it?” she whispered fiercely. I told her it was about one o’clock. “Oh, we’d better hurry then! Daddy’s going to kill me for being out so late!”

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Grandma holding my mom, Clarksdale, MS

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