She is forever there, imprinted in a thin layer of emulsion, a smile on her pretty face and the West Texas wind billowing her long flowing dress. Behind her a grainy, unformed mass of what appears to be creosote or catclaw grounds her to a desert landscape that could only be Chihuahuan, white hot from the sun, bleached out, baked to iron. Her white shoes, looking impossibly large for her frame, thrust from beneath her skirts like runners. She seems to totter on them, at once ungainly and gangly, as if a gust had overbalanced her. I imagine them layered with a fine patina of dust as everything in that forbidding landscape was layered. A small spray of flowers pinned to the front of her dress perpetually colors the monochromatic imagination. One hand carefully draped to her side, fingers splayed as if something light and insubstantial had been released, or freed.
As a portrait it lacks any sense of professionalism, the background blown out into an unrelieved white nothingness, her face shadowed, too much empty space, too little detail. A family snapshot and no more. And, for me, all that I have of Dorothy Mae.
It’s curious how she stands at the head of my family photo archive. Considering that I never met her, or if I did it was so long ago that memory wiped it clean. Why it’s there at all is something of a mystery. I’m sure it was part of a batch I’d scanned with the intent of compiling a database of old family photos, but the project itself had quickly fallen through leaving me only a handful of what I considered compelling images.
And why compelling? Better to ask Freud. Most of the kept images revealed details of the homeland, paintless picket fences, dirt roads bearing toward ruler-flat horizons, women in shapeless flour-sack dresses and men with weathered Stetsons and worn shirts buttoned to the throat. Dorothy Mae stood out for her youth and beauty, and perhaps even of the manner of her dress. She was dolled up and had places to go, though where that might have been is also a mystery.
Last week she embarked on her final voyage. The message, as is often the case when laden with news of such terrible portent, was short and to the point, with no other detail than that of her passing. When I called my father he placed her for me in the pantheon of his people, five brothers and one sister (my great-aunt), now all departed from this mortal plane. “She was the last,” he said. “She was the last of the Parkers.”
In retrospect it seemed an odd phrasing. At the time I was nursing a bloody cavity where yet another tooth had been extracted, and nursing a medicinal glass of bourbon, too. Parts of my mouth were still numb and puffy, dragging my words into a slight slur. Echoing through my head was a conversation I’d had with Lori before she left for work in which she asked—even while knowing the answer—“Does that make three in the last year?” The idea made me cringe.
I thought of that for a long while as I fought boredom, depression and something I could not name. When I had the first two teeth pulled it was almost with joy, for both had caused me great trouble and expense and having them exorcised was like being freed from their tyranny. To have it happen yet again, and so soon, hammered home the frangible nature of my remaining ivories. All are either crowned, capped or filled, with more than a few held together with steel pins. As if that weren’t enough, my gums are receding.
“It won’t be long until you have dentures,” Lori added.
Her remark was like a slap. Dentures are for old people, I thought. I’m not old.
Not that old.
But, I had to admit, I’m old enough to begin to experience the subtracting influence that age imposes upon us. For my parents, and perhaps my father most of all (for it is he who speaks the most on the subject, and never with bitterness or melancholy but in a factual, dead-pan tone with only a trace of sorrow), the subtraction is even keener and usually in terms of friends or relatives. He used to attend the annual Pyote class reunion in Texas until most of his classmates either grew too frail to travel or passed on, and now he watches the steady diminishment of World War II veterans. It’s not a regular subject of discussion but crops up now and then. Mostly he likes to talk about places where they’ve recently eaten with a commentary on the quality and piquancy of the green chile. Plus he still has his original teeth.
Our dialog about Dorothy Mae followed the same pattern. First the food and then the main entree, by which time my empty stomach was howling for anything remotely related to food, and the hotter the better.
When he said that Dorothy Mae was the “last of the Parkers,” I knew what he meant. Though outwardly it was a simple classification of the generation preceding his own, I couldn’t help but wonder if there was more to it. Lori tells me I tend to psychoanalyze others without the requisite training, so I knew I was treading on dangerous ground. But I sensed that he recognized the loss of that generation as a metaphoric step to the front of the line. The last of the Parkers hadn’t passed, obviously, they had merely stepped out of the way. As an only child, he himself had become the last.
I suppose there’s no other way. And yet it’s not that simple. We could just as easily say that those of us past our child-bearing days are the last in succession, and we would be correct. I see it differently: we the living are neither the last nor the first. Our traits, our behaviors, our beliefs, our physical characteristics (bad teeth and all), are influenced by the DNA passed down from those former generations. Until the stars burn out they live in us. So who, then, is the last? Dorothy Mae’s spark, her vitality, her smile, that hot West Texas wind, those hardscrabble ranchers, they are us and we are them. We are, simply, the living. We’re the Parkers.