My Father’s Photograph

When I try to remember it, the photograph is imperfect, and the only detail left intact is my father’s face. The photograph exists in its own columbarium. This photograph (which I should have and would have passed on to my own children) is now undergoing its own histolysis, accessible to me only through the involucrum of memory, which too is undergoing its own histolysis.

To approach the photograph is to approach its dysphonia along with my dysphoria. In the photograph, my father is smiling. He seems proud to own a suit and to have parents who own a car. Before these parents, he wore girls’ hand-me-downs, picked Oklahoma cotton, raised chickens to buy a fishing rod, starved, moved from orphanage to foster family to orphanage. The photograph seemed to be a foison of dreaming things, of things yet to come.

Printers place broken or discarded type in a “hell-box.” I imagine that lost portraits, because they contain, as Roland Barthes says, the “essence” of the person, must also have a hell-box, however metaphysical. Or perhaps they gather themselves into a columbary, where they are infested inevitably by psocid and reconstitute their own loam.

The photograph of my father was clipped, I imagine, in order to fit into a wallet. I like to think that my mother carried it in her wallet before bequeathing it to me for safekeeping. Only my father’s face is still vivid; the other elements are vague, and I will never know what resided in the areas that were cropped from the photo. So too will I never know the areas that were not photographed, the scenery that existed outside of the picture. Excluded from me as well are other elements that constituted his world: the inside of the house, his adopted parents’ demeanor, the town in which they lived, the nature of their outing. More importantly, the areas that I want most to see are the ones that the photograph contains but cannot reveal: the dark anterior whence life comes and the dark afterlife thither we proceed.

The front and back wings of certain insects are connected by a yoke-like structure called the “jugum.” My father’s photograph will never find its way back to me, and because of this permanent loss, I look to other modes of salvation. (If I cannot accept the loss of my father’s photograph, how then will I accept the loss of my father?) Our living bodies, I think, must be this yoke, this jugum, connecting our front and back wings.

Jenny Boully is a 2020 Guggenheim Fellow in General Nonfiction. She is the author of “Betwixt-and-Between: Essays on the Writing Life.” Her previous books include not merely because of the unknown that was stalking toward them, “The Book of Beginnings and Endings: Essays,” “[one love affair]*,” “of the mismatched teacups, of the single-serving spoon: a book of failures,” and “The Body: An Essay.” She teaches at Bennington College. She can be found on Twitter @jennyboully and online at

Originally appeared in NOR 2

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