Harold Ross, the founding editor of The New Yorker, used to scribble questions and comments in the margins of writers’ submissions. Whenever an author failed to adequately introduce a new character, Ross would jot a brisk note: “Who he?”
I have no idea who this gentleman is. The other day I was leafing through an 1895 book of poetry owned by my great-grandfather, Joseph Christian Brown, and this tiny, 1/2″ by 3/4″ photo fluttered out of the pages. I have blown it up on my scanner. Joe Brown died at 65 in 1917. Could this be a photograph of him?
I know very little about my great-grandfather, except that my great-grandmother, Mammee, for whom I am named, married him, and my grandmother, Mama, loved him. My older sister remembers that Mama called him “Papa.”
When my grandmother was in her late seventies, a series of small strokes due to arteriosclerosis rendered her almost a child again. I was about fifteen when she came to live with us, and was often called on to look after her. Mama would tell me about walking to school with her brothers in the very early 1900s with baked potatoes in her pockets to keep her hands warm. I wish I’d thought to ask more questions, and to record her answers.
Instead I look at this tiny photograph, hidden in a book for a hundred years, and wonder. Who are you — and what are you, to me?