The theme: an old photograph
Lillian Carter sat tapping her foot on the floor of the Greenwich Library as she flipped through yellowed copies of The New York Times Magazine. She had nothing better to do since, unlike her cousins, she was unmarried and past her prime at 37. Not that she’d ever had a prime age or a time of beauty. To her recollection, no one had ever referred to her as beautiful or pretty or even handsome. She was, simply, mannish and hard-looking. Lillian stood six feet tall, slender but sturdy, with sharp squared-off shoulders. Her jawbone appeared to be carved of stone; above it jutted prominent cheekbones, while close-set black eyes receded into the hollows of her eye sockets. Even the attempt at feathering her hair around her face did nothing to soften her look, so she resorted to twisting her locks into a rope of black braid. Well-meaning strangers often asked to which Indian tribe she belonged, but tired of the question after so many years, Lillian would often rebuff the inquirers with a silent glare.
Even more unwelcome to Lillian were the comments from the mouths of her own family members when they thought she couldn’t hear them. Those older than she often referred to her as The Family Secret. This much was certain: Lillian resembled none of them. It was scarcely possible that she could have been set down in a more WASP-ish family, as blond hair and blue eyes reigned supreme for generations. The disparity was not lost on Lillian, even as a child. And at the age of seven, she had asked her mother why everyone called her The Family Secret. Her mother had blanched and waved a hand as if swatting away the question.
“I told you,” her mother replied impatiently, “you were adopted. My distant cousin died shortly after you were born, and since Daddy and I didn’t have children of our own, we agreed to adopt you into our family. It’s no secret. That’s just nonsense.”
The story hadn’t changed since the last two times Lillian had heard it, and she supposed it was possible that a very, very distant cousin might look nothing like the rest of the family. But the feeling of not belonging never went away, just as she never got used to being the “ugly one” among her cousins, ignored by boys and never invited to school dances. Lillian could not imagine meeting someone else who looked just like her. The one person she might have resembled was dead, according to her mother, and there remained not a single photograph to prove the woman’s existence.
So it was with shock that Lillian discovered her own face staring back at her from the pages of The New York Times Magazine. The room tilted a bit and her breath stuck in her throat as she attempted to understand what she was seeing. The magazine had run an article in the issue dated March 1938, on the plight of farmers during the recession. Arthur Rothstein had been sent by the Farm Security Administration to document the poverty in rural America. Ten of his photos were reprinted for the benefit of readers.
Among them was a photo of Bessie McCrory of Sharp’s Holler, Tennessee. Bessie was thirty-two years old, but a harsh life had tanned and aged her until she could pass for twice that. Her stare was defiant, asking no one’s pity despite raising five children in stark poverty without the aid or benefit of a husband. She held an infant on her lap while four dirt-encrusted children gathered around her, wearing scraps of clothing they had clearly outgrown. By turns the children appeared angry, bewildered, ashamed, and starved for hope.
Only the infant girl appeared untouched by deprivation. She sat with both arms raised, reaching back toward her mother’s chin, while smiling at the stranger with the camera. Lillian was embarrassed to find herself sobbing in the library over this child whose unprejudiced view of life as a happy one was no doubt crushed within a year or two of her early life. Certainly the little girl had ended up sharing the expressions of anger and despair that were etched onto the faces of her brothers and sisters. Lillian closed the magazine and closed her eyes, sending up a belated prayer for the children and their mother who appeared to have been long since abandoned by hope.
Lillian awoke during the night, her skin prickly and cool with sweat. Something was forgotten when she had been sidetracked by the thought of the youngest child’s fate. She pictured Bessie McCrory, a woman attempting on her own to feed and clothe five children with virtually no means of support during the Depression. How was it that Lillian, having been raised in a life of privilege and ease, so closely resembled a woman whose face bore the furrows and scars of suffering?
Unable to sleep now, Lillian rooted beneath her bed until she found a box containing a scrapbook of her childhood. She examined the familiar picture on the first page. Lillian, as an infant, was cradled in the arms of a plump grandmotherly woman who wore glasses and short wavy hair parted on the side. No doubt this was the social worker who had delivered Lillian from a dead mother to adoptive cousins. Prying the photograph from its place, she read the pencil scrawl on the back: Lillian Georgia 1938. She had not seen the notation before and could not recall having been told that she was from Georgia, much less anywhere south of the Mason-Dixon line.
Lillian turned the page and for the second time in as many days, felt her breath catch at the picture before her. Baby Lillian sat in her adoptive mother’s lap, arms raised above her head, grasping at the chin of the young blonde woman. The posture and the expression on the infant’s face matched the photo of the McCrory baby; Lillian was sure of it. But according to Rothstein’s notes, the McCrorys had lived in Tennessee – not Georgia, as the other photo suggested.
The library would not be open again for six hours. Lillian put on a pot of coffee, then searched the remainder of her scrapbook for more clues, but found none. She was at the library’s door when it opened promptly at nine and brushed past Miss Nelms, the head librarian, on the way to the archived periodicals. She quickly found the magazine she was looking for and compared the photos. There was no longer any doubt in her mind: she was Bessie McCrory’s youngest daughter.
“Is there anything I can help you find?” Miss Nelms asked as she twirled a pencil hanging from the lanyard around her neck.
“I’m not sure,” Lillian admitted, feeling adrift. “I don’t know what to do.”
“Hey.” Miss Nelms tapped a manicured fingernail against the picture of Lillian and the social worker. “That’s Georgia Tann. Where did you get that picture?”
“Georgia?” It had been a name, Lillian realized, not a place.
“Georgia Tann,” Miss Nelms repeated. “The baby-snatcher. She used to trick poor people in Tennessee into giving up their babies. Then she’d turn around and sell the babies on the black market to wealthy couples. Tann made a mint and got away with it, and there’s no telling how many families she tore apart.”
Miss Nelms stopped when she noticed her guest had grown pale and appeared near fainting. “Are you alright, Miss? Can I get you anything? A glass of water, maybe?”
Lillian heard only the rush of blood in her ears. She felt pulled under by a wave of emotion that had been welling up within her for thirty-seven years. She had a family somewhere, people who looked like her, who would have accepted her without whispering cruel things behind her back. She’d been stolen from them and sold to liars who were willing to pay top dollar for a child, even if it meant destroying someone else’s family and spending a lifetime denying what they’d done.
When Lillian composed herself, she realized Miss Nelms was asking her if she’d like to sit down or have a glass of water. Of course, there was nothing that Miss Nelms – or even the Carters – could give her to make up for the lie that had been Lillian’s life, so she asked for the one thing she desired above all.
“I want my family back.”
Note: Arthur Rothstein and Georgia Tann are actual historical figures; however this story is a work of fiction.