This is a repost/revision of an older post for the dVerse family history prompt.

James & Birdie Fortner











It is difficult to tell the difference
between a grandfather and a ‘real
son-of-a-bitch’ in an blurry old
black and white, perhaps impossible
to reconcile man to myth, with years
of stories cluttering memories.

He is vibrant in the photograph,
confident, a man’s man in his
pressed suit and cocked fedora.
It would be easy to romanticize the image;
runnin’ moonshine down back roads
in the trunk of the Hudson — ninety to
nothin’ escapin’ crooked cops.

But that is not how it happened.

Cruel does not show on a polaroid,
controlling and angry are hidden in
still life. There are no pictures of when
his family hid in the apple orchard
waiting for the shooting to stop and the
whiskey to wear off.

I only remember seeing him twice.
Once at a truck stop — Mom would
not tell him where we lived — he gave
me circus peanuts, showed me where

he slept in his rig. The other was a surprise,
he showed up when we were visiting his mother,
Mom was pissed, but he did allow us go to his house,
go through some things, collect a couple of keepsakes.

A relative called, said his dates were on the headstone.
Was there remorse after his wife died
and his children refused to speak to him? Is there regret
for not knowing your grandchildren?

I wonder if he ever cared.
Maybe a bottle by his deathbed
was company enough.


Filed under Poetry

15 responses to “James

  1. You’ve written a vivid portrait, Mark. Sounds like someone a movie could be made about, but not someone you necessarily want to be part of your real life. I can understand why your mother didn’t tell him where you lived. Sad that you have so few personal memories of him. Sad that he didn’t care much about his grandchildren.

  2. Wow. I really was drawn in immediately – Powerful poem.

  3. Did you get my previous response? Not all my comments are making it to wordpress ( I looked for an email address – couldn’t find one)

  4. it’s sad when alcohol and temper ruins a life… there are too many… and maybe it’s better that you didn’t see too much of him you know…

  5. What a sad portrayal – and probably a good thing leaving him to the company to his friend the bottle.. But the image tells another story of what could have happened…

  6. So true that cruel doesn’t show in a photograph. Some people are just bad I guess and is sad when it’s in your own family. They do leave us questioning if they ever cared. A very vivid portrait indeed.

  7. Poignant and powerful.

  8. dang..yeah a picture def does not tell the full story or show the pain that comes with some people….cruel doesnt show…that is for sure….its odd too in seeing those we know one way in a different light…and you wonder could they ever have really been that person…

  9. I like the glaring contrast to the picture and the reality, his estrangement and alcoholism and rage ~ I can empathize with the family’s reluctance to see him ~ Very well done Mark, thanks for sharing ~

  10. Wow, Mark! Such a powerful “memory”. These are stories we tend to remember, even if just to keep from falling into that trap. Brother, you nailed this one! Thanks for reminding me of my own “black and white son-of-a-bitches” too!

  11. Jennifer G. Knoblock

    The first stanza is simply gorgeous. A hard story, poignant, but so well portrayed.

  12. A lot is hidden in photos…how the people treated us is one; this is a poignant story ..I do love the photo…all looks promising but we never really know what umpleasant changes or surprises we wil encounter 😉

  13. An interesting bit of family history. You tell it so well.

  14. Alcohol and cruelty often go hand in hand, and can be a raw reminder of who we do not want to turn into. Such a frank look at the past. We need remember that we are not always the sum of our past, that we alone decide who it is that we will be. Thanks for sharing.

Some of what I write is true, some is fiction; most is merely possibility.

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