I’m continuing to teach my class on creative writing through the lens of family stories. This week’s assignment was for the students to choose an old family photo and then tell a story from the perspective of one of the people in the photo.
I thought this would be a good method for my teens to explore a bit about their past, while at the same time practicing point of view. The purpose of the assignment is not to accurately convey the events that are captured by the photo, but to find a story in it. So, there is a bit of embellishment and historical fiction involved . . . but don’t all family stories involve those things?
I decided to do this assignment myself, choosing the photo below for my inspiration:
The photo came from my grandmother. It was taken in Valla, Austria, sometime near the beginning of the Great War—my family’s best guess is 1915. The man on the right is my grandmother’s father, my great-grandfather, Georg Thuringer, in his soldier’s uniform. The man on the left is a local cobbler and friend to my great-grandfather.
Here is the story I chose to tell, from the perspective and point of view of my great-great grandfather. Some things, such as the names of the cobbler and the photographer, and the circumstances of the photograph are inventions of my imagination. The facts of the story (such as my great-grandfather’s illness) are true.
* * *
I watch in sorrow and agony as my Maria, only seven years old, lifts the bucket by my bed and lugs it out of the room to empty it of the blood and mucus that I burdened it with throughout the night. The bucket is so heavy because of the gravel and sand Maria fills it with each day. It’s meant to help absorb the poison I retch out every few minutes. Now I think there is more of me in that bucket than there is sand.
But at least I was able to find the bucket in the darkness, able to control my bout enough to not soil the entire room. Not like two days ago, when I coughed so violently that I splattered the bloody contents of my lungs all over the sheets, the floor, and even the walls. Franzeika did not let Maria help with that clean up. My daughter has seen so much, but there are some things her mother still tries to keep from her.
Now Franzeika trudges into the room, her expression somber and unrevealing. My wife is ever the stoic one. She pulls the stool alongside my comfortable coffin, a bowl of steaming soup in her hands.
I struggle to sit up and greet her, which only increases the sharp whistling emanating from my chest. I sound like a machine. That is what I have come to, now, just a bag of slowly deteriorating parts, and a fleeing soul. I’m more mechanical than human.
As a soldier, I dug trenches twelve hours a day, ate slop, and slept on cold cement floors with no blankets to warm my body—and I still managed to plow forward like a horse. I withstood the bombardment of enemy armaments upon my unit’s fortifications and watched in horror as my comrades collapsed around me—and still I trudged on. But the one thing I could not overcome was the gas. That wretched vile fog besieged my lungs and now slowly gnaws away at them, bit by bit.
“Eat, you must eat,” Franzeika says, lifting a spoon to my lips.
It is what she always says and I find myself beginning to wonder why. There is no purpose to it. Even the hospital in Nagykaniza gave up on me and had the grace to send me home to die. Or perhaps they just needed the bed for some other poor soul. Whatever the case, my life is spent. Eating will not save me. It will only prolong my days of watching my wife and daughter mopping up bits of me.
Franzeika forces a spoonful of broth between my lips and, as much as I want to protest, I accept her nourishment. It’s the least I can do for her. As I let her feed me, like the invalid I am, my eyes wander the walls and I notice something new in my grim surroundings. A sepia photograph is pinned crookedly to the wall—certainly by a child’s hand, because Franzeika is far too fastidious to permit something so askew. But she notices my recognition of the photo and says, “Andris brought it to the house after you left. Maria thought it might cheer you up.”
I contemplate the photo. Standing there in the frame, rigid and unsure, is myself and my best friend, Petr, and I am reminded of the day I went to war . . .
The day I leave for the front is crystal clear in my mind. It is a cold spring day, 1915, but I do not mind the temperature—I have my sharp and comfortable uniform, with its long coat and double rows of buttons. The truth is that I do not want to go to war; it has taken conscription to get me there, but today, as I march through the streets of Valla, everyone seems to be looking at me in a new way, regarding me with a sense of pride. I tip my soldier’s cap in response, slightly embarrassed by the attention.
When I reach Petr’s shop, I pause and peer through the window to see him stooped over his bench, mallet in one hand, a shoe in the other, and his mouth full of hobnails. How I wish he was coming with me, my oldest friend. My best friend. But he has not yet been conscripted—and he is not about to enlist.
“You think too highly of the empire,” he is fond of berating me. “They demand your service. But will they look after you when this terrible affair is done?”
Yet Petr does not launch into sermon or lecture on this morning. When he realizes I’ve arrived, he simply stands and wanders into the street to greet me.
“So today has come, Georg,” he says simply.
“I take the train to Liberec in an hour,” I inform him. I offer him my hand, only to realize that his are full; he is still holding his mallet and shoe.
“Hey, there, George! Petr!” someone calls.
We turn to see Andris standing across the lane, in the doorway of his shop. “How about a photograph? It’s not every day you go to war.”
“And not often that you come back,” I hear Petr grumble under his breath.
“There is not enough time,” I tell Andris, thinking that he means for us to come inside and to pose in his studio. I say this partially because it is true—there is little time—but also because I know Petr will refuse to participate in making this occasion seem momentous.
“Come, come, let’s capture two friends together on this fine morning,” Andris persists. “We will do it here. On the street. Alida! Fetch me the camera.”
I stand there awkwardly as Andris and his deferent wife set up the apparatus. It is a complicated device and takes a moment—a moment in which I’m left to linger with Petr while passersby pause to stare at us. It’s an unusual event for someone to have his picture taken so informally.
At last, Andris is ready. “Stand still,” he tells us, though in truth Andris has the latest in camera equipment and we do not have to pose like statues, like my father might have had to do in the old days.
The photo is taken and Andris is disassembling his equipment when little Maria comes skipping down the lane.
“Papa,” she says, “Mama says time to come. We must go to the station.”
She leaps into my arms and I lift her up. Then, turning to Petr, I offer him a smile. His hands are still full and, now, so are mine.
“Farewell, Petr,” I tell him before turning to trek down the road, towards my fate.
I can’t imagine lifting Maria in my arms now. She is two years older, but that is not why. I simply don’t have the strength. She returns to the room with the bucket cleaned and refilled with fresh gravel. She sets it by my bed then lingers by her mother, watching the slow and agonizing enterprise of me being fed.
“Maria,” Franzeika chides, “go find your brother and help him with his chores.”
Maria nods, her large brown eyes staring at me, hopeful and frightened at the same time.
I return my attention to the photo on the wall, gazing upon the face of my old friend. That moment captured by the photo was the last time I ever saw him. He had not eluded conscription for very long. Shortly after I left he, too, went to war. Franzeika told me he was killed only after three months, shot through the chest. At least he died quickly. At least he does not suffer, like I do.
For that, I am thankful.