There was a time when a snapshot took days to view: Someone had to bring a camera, convince people to pose, snap the photo, then drop off the film and wait a week to see the pictures. Still, then as now, while posers may have been captured for a moment, their secret selves were not revealed. To know who they are and the stories they hide, you need memories.
The snapshot here was taken in the 1950’s when Grandpa and Grandma Leslie bought the little clapboard house you see behind them. Savers, (although my mother considered them miserly) they were able to squirrel away enough for a second house. As immigrants from England, I’m sure it was their Downtown Abbey; for what better way to show the family back in London how successful they were than a country manor. Their manor had no hot water (unless we boiled the frigid lake water from the kitchen pump) and no indoor plumbing. There was a commode in the bedroom which I thought could hold all my bowels would release. It didn’t. My mother was not amused by my error.
Even without the basic amenities, a second home for a seamstress and tailor should have made them deliriously happy. But the photo shows them in their usual state; aloof and detached.
Although their given names were Alexander and Sarah, I called Dad’s parents by their last names as if they were Lord and Lady Grantham. Only part of their formality could be traced to their English stiff upper lips—the real reason for their diffidence was that they hated each other.
How their contempt began is still mysterious. Perhaps my father was privy to their enmity, but this black and white photo could only catch their expressions of that moment. Years later, my mother filled me in with what little she knew. Keep in mind, Mom had no love for them; making her version, sterile and without warmth or compassion.
The earliest photos of Grandma Leslie (in a shoebox Jim accidently threw out) showed a dazzling beauty; tall and slender. (Sadly, I didn’t inherit her legs, but I gave them to Alice in my novel). My favorite surviving photo is a large sweeping snapshot of a factory wall with workers lined up for what seems to be a company photo. Among the men with handle bar mustaches and girls in long aprons (I’ll never know what they produced) was Sarah; wild curly hair piled high on top of her head and a genuinely happy grin. I recognized one of the men. It was her brother, Alfred whom she would lose to tuberculosis a decade after this photo was taken.
The siblings; Pauline called Polly, Sarah and Alfred Melzac were born in Poland. Weeks before Alfred’s birth, their father died, leaving their widowed mother; my great-grandma (I’ve seen her photos too—not a happy lady either) to raise three children on her own. By the time Sarah was a toddler, her mom had married an Englishman who gave them his name; Seaton and took them all to London. There, they added two more half-sisters to the brood before Mr. Seaton, like his predecessor, died young. No wonder Sarah and Alfred were teenaged factory workers.
One day, on a train ride, the Seaton family sat near two Polish soldiers. One of the fair-haired men was instantly smitten by Sarah and told his friend, "Ona jest ładna.” (She is pretty.) Grandma, thanked him in Polish and love was born. After all the wedding plans were made and the gown fitted, the soldier re-thought making a life in a foreign country with a widowed mother-in-law and her three still-at-home children. He scooted back to Krakow faster than you can say, left at the altar.
Among the existing sepia photos were several of Grandpa Leslie and Grandma’s brother, Alfred as young dandies of their time. Short scrawny Alexander and handsome Alfred on a ship, at Buckingham Palace, and double dating at the beach. Their joy bubbles off matte finish. The last of these pictures is Alfred’s grave in England. If I stitch together the hints from my mother, the quiet desperation I witnessed weekly at my grandparents’ Sunday lunches and the train story Grandma told me while she lay dying, I can create a tapestry of what may have happened long before I was born.
Pretty Sarah, who probably wouldn’t have given Alexander a second look, was alone and bereft by her brother’s death. Alexander, who had lost his best friend probably wasn’t thinking clearly either and the two assumed they would find comfort in marriage. Later photos mark years of holidays and trips to Florida, but none show cheerfulness or even contentment.
This snapshot perfectly captures the painted metal chair, the wooden trim around the front door and the summer-leafed trees above, but the couple before us keeps their secrets.
Grandma and Grandpa Leslie took a lifetime of photos, yet there were fewer than a hundred. Now, we take hundreds in a wink of an eye. Are they revealing too much of our hearts, or will they keep our secrets too.