This is my grandfather Max. In 1948, Dora, my freshly divorced grandmother cut his body out of their wedding portrait with her sewing scissors.
In the conventions of 1920s domestic photography, one spouse stands while the other sits in an oversize chair, a portrait photographer’s prop. For twenty years, just to Max’s left, Dora sat in that chair. Then New York State granted her a divorce, she boarded a single-prop passenger plane in Albany and flew cross-country to Los Angeles in six five hundred-mile hops amid heavy turbulence.
She gave Max’s half of the photo to my mother, who pasted it to a photo album’s black construction paper page.
The other half of the photo, the half with my seated grandmother, is nowhere to be found. She would not have kept it. She would have crushed it in her fist. She would have thrown it with force into the garbage with the butchered bones spooned out of the beef stock.
If I spliced every memory I have of Max, the film would run about 30 seconds. Max himself appears in very little of this limited footage. In Scene One, on the way to visit him one Sunday, Dad parks the Dodge Dart and runs into the liquor store to pick up three cartons of L&Ms and a bottle of Jim Beam. We wait, me and my sister, in the back bench seat. From the front seat, Mom starts us on a word game, twenty questions or geography. We do not talk about my grandfather.
Scene Two opens an hour later. I’m standing with my sister on a concrete walkway behind the sanitarium. A low box hedge separates me from the little patio behind Max’s small room. He’s sitting in a wheelchair. We wave at him. He waves back. Tuberculosis: Mom doesn’t want us exposed. My eight year old eyes do pay attention to the sick man’s face. They stare at the wheelchair. Mom stoops, angled at the waist, to kiss his cheek with the outermost surface of her lips.
A year later, Max is dead. The grandchildren don’t attend the funeral.