Grandma and the children
are looking at the camera
only straight lines where the lips meet in earnest.
Grandpa is looking off to the side
into some far distance, perhaps some other country.
Grandma’s hand rests on the shoulder
of her eldest granddaughter
who stands tree-like solid
in her heavy winter coat and knitted mittens
and a black bonnet that tops her round full face.
This is Margaret
the one who bears Grandma’s name
and perhaps a kind of closeness and affection.
Their faces are mirror images
one fresh and yearning
the other softened and weary
with wire-rimmed glasses that magnify the losses. Grandma is slowly going blind.
Rita, thin sapling, stands at the edge of the picture
almost out of sight.
Bernard is bundled in a woolen one-piece snowsuit
so thick his arms hover at a 45 degree angle at his sides.
I cannot see the black armbands
that grandma and grandpa wore for that year
after the two boys died in Holland
and again after Suzanna’s death in the New Country.
I cannot hear grandma’s howling grief
and grandpa’s persistent prayers.
They stand at the back door
of the white house with clapboard siding.
Here is the common story.
The long journey from the old country with little children who grow up and marry and raise a family in a new land with a new language and live in a white house.
When I look closely I see the white picket fence surrounding the yard to keep things in and keep things out.
A sea of small faces staring straight ahead.
The young girls in the foreground
are sitting with their obedient hands
resting anxiously in their laps
all wearing versions of the same
plain dress buttoned in back
some with a little flourish at the collar.
One girl in the front row has her arms
boldly folded across her chest
and all the sad hard faces say
this is not my home.
This is not a photo for the children
not a memory or a celebration.
This is a counting.
This is testimony for the government
that the Indian school can
take the Indian out of the man.
There are 8 long rows of boys
from the youngest to the oldest
all in uniform. The boys are standing
at military attention.
All the battles are going on inside them.
The stately school buildings are in the background.
I cannot see the piles of hair
as each child is shorn like a sheep upon arrival.
I cannot hear the new names they are assigned
I cannot know the confusion
of being beaten for speaking the only language one knows.
From this distance
I cannot see the raw hands of the 8 year olds
forced to wash laundry every day.
I cannot see the blistered fingers of the 10 year olds
or the bruises from the rod.
I cannot hear the gasps of lungs
ravaged by tuberculosis
or feel the itching eyes infected
with trachoma and slowly going blind.
I cannot hear the muffled screams of the young girls who will never be able to forget.
When I look closely I see the ramshackle fence
around the cemetery out back.
I hear the grief of the grandmothers who were told too late.