What if you were forced – due to a material constraint that is pretty well unthinkable – to pare down your personal visual archive to a single picture? Which one would you choose? How would you operate that selection? What would that picture come to mean to you, and could you bear to let go of the others?I have many pictures of myself, entities multiplied beyond necessity, but none of them looks like me. Instead here is a truly single picture, my great-great-grandfather with his Crimean war medals. One of them survives and is hung at the bottom of the frame. Sergeant-Major James Kerr:
.. To have a single portrait of oneself means to have one more than almost all of the people in almost all of history.
When that picture was taken, neither Denver nor Colorado existed, only the windy plains cut by the broad muddy river whose name is 'flat water' in most languages - Kíckatus in Pawnee, Nebraskier in Ota, Plate in French. The Arapahoe called it the Tallow River, niinénii niicíihéhe'. Tallow is a word Sgt. Kerr would likely have known, meaning the rendered fat of cattle, but I doubt the Arapahoe meant this: instead my guess is it meant something like the promised land, the fat land: plenty of buffalo to keep the tribe in a happy well-fed state of grease. Now the tribes and the buffalo are gone, and a singular picture hangs in the Denver suburbs at the end of its travels. My connection to it is through my mother and her stories, tenuous but real. My children have only stories of stories of another country and the past.
I have exhausted my knowledge of him, that martial presence standing lonely but assured in the empty palace of memory. His daughter by his first wife was Sarah McDonald Kerr, who taught at the Sabbath School of the Presbyterian kirk in town.
When her mother died and SM Kerr remarried, Sarah went to South Africa as a governess, taking with her a picture of her father and that Bible. The governed family was the Stevensons, who lived through the siege of Ladysmith, and had a street in town named for the father. There she met another vagrant Scot, Leslie Singer, a master stonemason and builder: who built the bridges on the old Delagoa Bay line; knew Percy Fitzpatrick and many of the hunters from the earlies; put up the stone lions couchant on Oom Paul Kruger's stoep.
They lived in Pilgrim's Rest to escape the fevers and morbidities of the coast. In the second Boer war he retreated to Durban, the family going back to Scotland. I hope SM Kerr met his grandchildren there. Meanwhile across in the Free State, another ancestor was fighting for the Boers; his family and small children swept up into the first civilian concentration camps of history, as Lord Roberts pursued a scorched earth campaign against the guerrillas.
The hatred of the English nurtured in these camps lasted well, so I met it when conscripted into the armies of apartheid in the next decade of the 80s. The Afrikaners were derogated as rock spiders, a term going back to that war: the Boers would not line up to be slaughtered with due process by the imperial soldiers, sensibly preferring to hide in the rocks and snipe from there. They called us rooinekke or blerrie rooinekke, red necks, from the sunburnt necks of those imperial troops. Wars last in strange ways. There was another term, soutpiel, meaning a salty organ of procreation: the idea being the Englishman had one foot in South Africa, another in England, and said organ in between washed by the salt oceans. This startled me with an unexpected note of fantasy. Before the Army I had not thought to hate the English for imprisoning my Dutch and Danish forebears. After that, it still seemed a bootless emotion.
Sarah's daughter Ellen married Gerard Bier, a descendant of several gloriously-named Hieronymus Biers. The house of the first of these still stands on a canal in Amsterdam. The second was a Boer, though his daughters preferred English. Ellen and Gerard lived in what had been Delagoa Bay, then Lourenço Marques, Gerard working as an accountant. His inkwell is another remainder, escaped alone from the erosions of time running down. Here it is on my desk, sharing the space with a computer monitor and these words on it. The inkwell stands as a memento mori, a reminder of other scriveners, and a blaze of silver light.
For some time they shared a house with the Anglican Bishop of Lebombo. Since it was the Bishop's residence, it became a Palace, though just the same wood and iron shanty as the other houses in town. My mother was born in the Miramar Hotel, as they felt the bachelor Bishop should not be embarrassed by these female proceedings.
My mother remembered both of her grandparents fondly. Sarah was an intelligent kindly woman, though tolerating no kinds of fun on the Sabbath - Kirk followed by some light Bible perusal while clad in Sunday best, was about the sum of it. They had retired to Pilgrim's Rest by this time. The grandchildren found respite there from the jiggers, mambas and heat of LM during the summers. I have another picture now lost to everything but memory, of two little girls in bathing suits by the Blyde river. In the end Joy lived in the same retirement home as my mother. We went to lunch when she was in her 80s and my mother no longer grew older. Joy's stories of those days took the scenic route, up down and around through recollections of hills, forests, rivers, children and parents: yet invariably reached their destination in good order, winding up all the threads and gathering them back together. I was too young and simpleminded to understand this prodigious feat of memory, a lost world and its peoples held up and turned to the light for me: and thought Joy was wandering, though only one of us was astray.
Leslie and Sarah are buried together in Pilgrim's, in the new graveyard. Their little grandson who survived only a few days lies beside them. My mother wanted to be buried there as well, but by that time it had become a national monument with no new thing permitted, no longer that possibility we were.
In the Ukraine where war is starting yet again, the child of her fathers and mothers looks at their one pictures, and speaks for us from the museum of abandoned secrets:
"I don't have it in me to resist the numbing spread of this insane, universal tenderness that pools under my skin like blood from a thousand wounds - this visceral, glandular pity for these dead, for their youth, their speech, their laughter no longer audible from where we are, their piercingly pitiful, childlike innocence to the impenetrable gloom that awaits them."