I took a break from organizing and donating crafting supplies to begin the task of categorizing photos. The entire surface of the bed in the guest room is covered in boxes and baskets of photos. This room, the guest room, is my most favorite. It is decorated exactly the way I want it – simple white linens, an antique cherry night stand on one side of the bed and a filing cabinet hidden under a round top and layers of white linens on the other. The headboard is painted white-ish and gold – perfectly distressed – there is a cream colored bookcase, a dark oak hutch, white linen curtains and a dark wood chair. The art on the walls consists of bird prints and tiny pieces of original art I purchased on trips abroad. It is simple and clean (most of the time) and it’s where I go to breathe. The one room that is almost always neat and clean. I miss that feeling, so I’m digging in to unearth my little island of calm.
The photos are a mix of recent, with vibrant colors and uniform sizes and old yellowed, black and white with creases and cardboard backing. I love them all. The fresh memories and the bits of history I’m left to make up in the older ones. It’s those stories waiting to be told that I get lost in.
In these various piles there are two secrets closely held: one in a brown vinyl travel bag, the other in a tan photo album. They belong to my uncles. The twin great-uncles that I loved so dearly.
There is nothing scandalous hidden here. No pornographic images, no confessions or blackmail. The memories and photos are powerful in their simplicity. Each had many photos of the two of them together, they were very close, just standing side by side smiling for the camera. They were gay, both of them, though the opera singer would never claim his preferences. His brother, discreet, but out, would share his twin’s secrets with my mother and I after his death.
They weren’t really secrets.
The photos they left behind hold images of men seated in living rooms and kitchens, laughing, smiling, enjoying themselves. There are couples, it seems, only if the time is taken to go through them all. The same two men are standing or seated side by side with their arms around each other like “pals” on more than one occasion, in different clothes and maybe a change in hair style or length. These were relationships.
Tucked in with these photos are newspaper clippings of accomplishments of each other and their friends, their family.
What is so striking about these photos is nothing. Yet they were held in bottom drawers of dressers under winter clothes. I imagine them filling a roll of film half with these photos and the other half with shots of them with family and women so as not to arouse suspicion at the one-hour photo processing center in their home towns. Or even driving the unprocessed film far enough away. They would carefully cull out the photos and place the special ones in albums to be viewed often and probably alone or just with the subjects contained within. The other photos would be found loose in a kitchen drawer or in the envelope they came in, resting on the coffee table. Or maybe discarded.
So much of their lives were manipulated and restrained for the comfort of others. These secrets and maybe lies would ultimately undo them.
The opera singer, became well known in the opera community of New York City. He was married three times to different women, powerful artists in their own rights. I always suspected he was gay. He was just this side of flamboyant – dramatic perhaps, that was his job after all – and he never had children. Never wanted them. He was happy to be an uncle and he was an awesome one.
But his secrecy made him sick.
Ultimately the “not gay” opera singing uncle would succumb to AIDS toward the end of the eighties. He wasted away. He had denied his actual existence in favor of the persona he thought everyone wanted. And it killed him.
The other uncle lived much more quietly, pursuing the arts differently. He would work in Europe for Fortuny, then in Boston. Later he would open a lighting store, then a florist shop. He would drink and make the unfortunate decisions that come along with alcoholism. It was not easy living inauthentically. Liquor helped.
Later in life he would give it up. He met and fell in love with someone a decade younger who was sober but infected. They never had sex, he told me, but they were affectionate and madly in love. There are photos that make this obvious. Sweet, gentle images of the two of them engaged in conversation, smiling, listening.
But AIDS would take him too. They both knew it would eventually come and were as prepared as anyone can be for such profound, gradual loss.
There would be no other lovers. Instead he turned his life over to AA. For over 30 years my sweet uncle would take in people in the “the program” who needed a soft place to land for a while. He had inherited his father’s house and there were two bedrooms and a Florida room surrounded on two sides with jalousie windows and a back door. He moved into the Florida room to allow the residents of the other rooms some privacy. That’s just how he was.
The house was a very small typical Florida home built sometime in the 40s and 50s. Just one small bathroom, a large kitchen with a window over the sink with a wide sill that my great grandmother would place peanut butter crackers on for the local squirrel population, feeding some of them by hand and a living room big enough to fit an upright piano. His parents had lived in it over 30 years. He moved in with his father to help take care of him in his later years, to be sure he took his meds and didn’t drive after too many cocktails. His dad “knew” but it wasn’t discussed. His mother had passed ten years prior and she would not allow it to be spoken about. She knew too, they were her babies, the youngest of six by about 12 years. But still, you just didn’t talk about such things.
He would, much later after his beloved dog died, check himself into an assisted care facility from which he would not emerge alive. He was beginning to forget things and didn’t want to be a burden. He knew what was coming, he had seen it in every one of his older siblings, except his twin who would escape that fate by dying too young. Less than a year after he moved out of his tiny Florida home he went to sleep and didn’t wake up. I’m pretty sure he planned it that way.
Their lives were rich, they mattered. They loved wholly and completely. They each left a legacy of art, beauty, laughter and love.
They were great, great-uncles and sifting through their photographic pasts fills my heart with compassion and sadness in equal measure for the lives they lived and the ones they hid.