The Photograph I Cannot Forget by Nicola Stockley

Writing.ie | Magazine | Mining Memories | Tell Your Own Story
Nicola Stockley

Nicola Stockley

No one is smiling. It’s 1901, Cork. A family of eleven are grouped in front of faded wall paper – two pillars at the back of the room lead the eye through an open doorway but everyone here is looking straight ahead. Nine children grouped around their parents – the father in his dark Victorian suit and large bow tie, looks out from behind his round, wire spectacle frames. His gaze is sharp, inquisitorial, his moustache tailored like his suit, the mother, inclined slightly towards her husband, her movement restricted by a corset that rewards and punishes her with a painfully tiny waist. The daughters – teenagers or young adults also have their clothes drawn tightly in at the waist, long hair pulled back from serious faces, lace ruffles frothing on their chests. The sons’ hair is cut military short – their faces blank. They stand stiffly with their hands resting lightly on their sisters’ chairs. Just two tiny forms break with formality. Huddled on the floor, two sisters, the younger about four years old is dressed in a baggy white smock, as if she is still wearing her Christening robe. Her hair is cut as short as her brothers’, her expression fixed and as inscrutable as theirs, though because she is the smallest she is looking slightly upwards, as if trying to meet the gaze of the photographer. She is my grandmother.

And so I have come to Cork, following the threads that link me to that little girl. Standing on a doorstep I watch the following scene unfold.

“Will you come in for a coffee – we’re having one just now?”

Finn, a tall elderly man, had opened his front door to answer my knock and saw his friend Patrick across the street.

“Ah, no I can’t, I’m going to Dublin this afternoon.”

“Sure, but it’s not even 11.”

“Ah yes but I’m very easily way -laid.”

“Just a quick one then.”

“If I come in for a coffee I’ll never be going to Dublin.”

Finn laughs.

Patrick shrugs his shoulders but makes no move towards Dublin. Caught between two possible choices – and already feeling the loss of whichever option he doesn’t take – he crosses the street and grips Finn’s hand. They stand hands locked, looking into each others faces, nodding at one another, neither wanting to break the moment until finally Patrick gently backs away – turning and waving behind him as he walks back down the street.

The image of his parting wave lingers as I follow Finn into the house, a Georgian end of terrace building, dark and grand with the scent of lilies. He opens the door at the end of the narrow hallway and points to an enormous dark oak table around which the rest of the room seems to have grown and tells me to seat myself down. I’ve come to see my cousins in my grandmother’s hometown. Our grandmothers were sisters, our great grandfather, the oldest male in the photograph.

Today is the first day of a voyage into my past – the beginning of a quest to connect with what could so easily be lost – the chance to understand the people that peppered my childhood. They exist as mythical characters in my grandmother’s stories, the very first tales that I was told by a wise, warm woman whose voice I have never stopped hearing in my head. Like characters in a play – they loom large at times and then recede, each time she told a tale they would step forward and walk onto the stage and as I try to remember her tales, they are summoned forward once more, in a different guise no doubt, infused with my memories and misremembering , as yet fainter shadows that once filled space and time. Her family would disperse around the world, driven by both love and necessity, destinies hanging on lucky gambles and bad losses, their lives separated by war, and untimely death. But all was triggered by the decision of one single and singular man, her father, Christoph, the patriarch in the photograph and, I believe – to my grandmother – the puppet master.

I scan the busy room trying to establish my bearings. Stuffed bookshelves climb up and along the walls interrupted by Victorian dressers themselves filled to the limit. Pieces of china, antique clocks, library filing cards, yet more books crammed in side ways – Goethe, Schiller, Lonely Planet travel guides, recipes for soda bread, newspaper cuttings, the residue of three generations, pieces kept because of their value or for love, yet others out of a sense of duty – guilt even. You cannot throw away a set of collection of Schiller’s poetry even if no one were to read German anymore. Perhaps especially.

Orla is parking the car having collected me from the airport, a short journey during which we talk about the English invasion of Ireland, road diversions, flat conversions, the house burned down by the IRA and Christmas. Lines of thought jump and double back, there is no discomfort and yet I have never met my cousin and only once been to Cork. That was nearly 60 years ago.

Finn, Orla’s boyfriend ushers me in then disappears into another room once Orla enters with the coffee. She pauses and we look at each other no longer distracted by the movement of the car. We wonder if we will be able to answer each other’s questions – what we may be able to find out about our great grand parents and so perhaps about ourselves. But first, what of each other. I have been in Orla’s company for no more than an hour – yet feel I have known her for years. True, I have known of her for years, we are related, and I try to account for the strong tie that pulls me towards her but I cannot. A common ground that cannot yet be defined but is there nonetheless like a presence.

“So what was Cressie like?”

“Granny Cressie. Wonderful. I loved her, grew up with her. Mischievous, full of energy and full of stories. Her childhood became the stuff of mine, her brothers and sisters, the people I grew up with – like characters from a book only I know they were real. Her sister, your grandmother Adelaide, she called Adie. Did you call her “granny Adie”?

“Oh no. Always grandmother.”

“Did Adelaide talk about the parents?”

“Not very much. Did Cressie?”

“She told me her father was a tyrant, I always remember that ”

“A tyrant, did she?”

The photograph was on the table in front of us, it’s the first time we have seen it together.

I study each face and match it with their names written on an adjacent page, the names I know from the stories she told but not the faces. None of them are familiar. And there is Hans. As a child he was a name without a face, the “father” in my grandmother’s stories, her father but now as an adult seeing a picture of him he is both more real and even more elusive. He seems to dominate the frame. Perhaps it is his position in the picture – perhaps because as the eldest male he would naturally have held all the power – or am I seeing it through what I think are my grandmother’s eyes. How can I know, by the time I am seeing it everyone in the picture has died – how would they have read the photograph. I go from the eldest male to the youngest girl – Christoph to Cress and see not just two people in the same portrait, two people with their own branch on a family tree but as people who exerted a force on each other and one I know my grandmother felt deeply.

“Maybe he was just a typical Victorian father?” Orla offers. “Our grandmother certainly never talked about him as a tyrant – in fact it was great grandmother she found tricky. But not her father.” Orla continued pulling up documents, musical scores, programme notes, some faded, others thumbed, envelopes yet to be opened. “He must have been ambitious, he trained in Rome as well as Germany before emigrating to Ireland.”

“Why do you think he came?” I ask.

“Well, there was the question of his in-laws,” Orla laughs.

Much that connects to our great grandfather has come to rest here in her house in Cork but these cannot provide a whole narrative nor an explanation of the man who I’ve always sensed cast a shadow over my grandmother’s life. I look at this man surrounded by his nine children – and wonder who our great grandfather really was. A German musician who left his homeland, had a family of nine children in Cork and who died on the other side of the world. A boat ticket from Prussia, a concert programme in Cork, a burial plot in Philadelphia, all fragments. In this photograph is my beginning.

(c) Nicola Stockley

About the author

I was born in London but my earliest memories are of my wonderful Irish grandmother who lived with us and of the endless stories she told of her Irish childhood. She had a huge influence upon me. I was born in the UK but am delighted to be an Irish citizen. I work as a documentary filmmaker, most recently making a feature length documentary about Shakespeare’s first folio for PBS in America but one of my earliest films was about the Warrington bomb and the attempt by Susan Mc Hugh to initiate another peace movement.

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