This is the first photograph that I ever saw of my grandfather, Ralph James.
He is standing next to his older sister, Eva, in her kitchen in Flint, Michigan, sometime in the 1950s. Their youngest brother, Bill, who is visiting from Virginia, stands beside them.
If you knew my father—and to a lesser degree, me—you would instantly recognize the man on the right as our ancestor. That smirk, the way he pulls down his chin and sets his jaw, is exactly how my father smiles when a camera is pointed at him or after he says something he finds particularly witty. The half-moons under his eyes reflect back to me every night when I look in the mirror. His one bony knuckle at the base of his middle finger is my one bony knuckle.
It’s easy to understand why this photo was special to me when I received it. But I’d like to tell you why it’s still special to me a decade later.
As I mentioned, I had never seen my grandfather before receiving this photo. At the time it was taken, Ralph James was father to 4 children, none of whom he had custody over. His eldest daughter lived with her mother, Ralph’s first wife, in Iowa. Ralph’s younger children—my father and his siblings—were taken by the courts when they were small.
As an adult, Dad didn’t know much about Ralph. He knew Ralph was from Council Bluffs, Iowa, because Aunt Eva, the woman in the photo, had maintained a distant relationship with him as he grew up. Its with that information that I started researching the rest of the family.
Over the years, I’ve found out Ralph’s father, Noah, had also been an alcoholic. Noah spent his meager income as a cabinet maker getting blitzed, forcing his wife to scramble in order to feed their eight children. The kids went hungry often. Newspaper articles informed me that Ralph’s first wife had divorced him twice for domestic abuse. When I told Dad that, he said he did remember Ralph getting rough with his mother. A cousin recently told me that Ralph’s eldest daughter traveled to Flint about the time that this photo was taken. When she returned from that trip, she decided to never talk to Ralph again. In 1972, Ralph died penniless, forcing my dad, who had remained estranged from him, to pay for the burial.
The more research I did, the worse Ralph looked. Arrests, abandonment, blame. There were so many reasons to believe he was a broken, miserable soul. I convinced myself he was a loser, and he very well might have been.
But take a look at the photo again.
Find Eva’s hands.
See how tightly she’s clutching Ralph’s waist? See how my grandfather’s hand rests on his brother’s shoulder? There was love there.
As I mentioned, I know that look on my grandfather’s face. I’ve seen it on my dad’s face; I’ve probably made it myself.
Actually, I know I have. It’s the face I make when I’m proud. And that’s why this photo has remained special to me over the years. In that moment . . . with his family . . . Ralph James, my derelict grandfather, was proud. He was wanted. With this image, there is a possibility in my mind that he was more than the papers I’ve dug up on him and the stories I’ve heard. Oh, he made unforgivable mistakes, absolutely. His decisions or his lack of making decisions very much shaped my father’s life. And my own. Thankfully, it turned out positively for me and my brothers. Because of Ralph, my father set a goal to be present and reliable, to swear off drinking. A goal Ralph could never manage in his 66 years on this planet. Though, I should mention, toward the end he tried to fix things with my dad. He did try.
But back to the photo and that smirk on Ralph’s face. Back to the fierceness with which his sister clutches him. The camera captured them in dual acts of defiance. Their eyes speak volumes: “Yeah. Go ahead and take my picture. Let people judge me. Who are they to me, anyhow? My family still stands beside me, and the world can’t possibly know what we’ve been through.”