The boy in the picture
The attic was a place where, it seemed, anything might be found.
Old clothes to dress up in.
A place to hide when the younger kids were just too annoying.
An education in anatomy, through the … um … unclad figures in my father’s old how-to-do-photography books.
And the boy in the picture.
I will never forget the day I found that boy. I was probably 10 years old or so, up in the attic of the house where I grew up, and poking around in the boxes that were stashed up there.
And I came across what I remember as a small box inside a bigger box inside a bigger box.
And it had pictures. Mostly of people I didn’t know. But then there was that one that had someone I did know.
On the left (as I recall) was my father, in a tuxedo. On the right, a woman in a wedding gown.
A woman who, it was abundantly clear from her blond hair and light eyes, was not my brown-haired brown-eyed mother.
Now that photo, as I recall, didn’t really arouse my interest much at all. My mother’s family was the only family I ever knew growing up — my father’s parents were dead before I was born — and in my mother’s family, multiple marriages weren’t exactly rare. The number of former aunts and uncles by marriage on that side greatly exceeds the number of aunts and uncles by birth.
No, I don’t remember even wondering much about that photo of my father and the woman who wasn’t my mother. Maybe it was just that whoever she was didn’t have anything to do with me. And maybe it was because of the photo underneath that photo.
The photo you see here.
The photo of the boy.
Before that day in that attic all those years ago I knew I had one older sibling — a sister, Diana.
But that day in that attic all those years ago I knew somehow immediately.
I knew we had another older sibling.
The boy in the picture.
I don’t remember ever thinking, not even for one minute, that perhaps he might not have survived. That the reason why my father had been free to marry my mother might have been because of death, rather than divorce.
What I knew, beyond any question, was that there was a boy out there who was my brother. My older brother. Mine. And I wanted him.
What I didn’t know, then or for years afterwards, was how to go about getting that brother into my life.
It just wasn’t in the cards for that kid aged 10 or so to go downstairs and strike up a conversation: “Hey Dad, about that first marriage and the boy in the picture…” My German-born father rarely spoke about his life before he met my mother. It wasn’t until I got into genealogy, years after his death, that I even knew he had aunts and uncles, and I had cousins, in the United States.
But I never forgot the boy in the picture. And it ate at me and ate at me and ate at me, until the day just before I headed off to college when I screwed up my courage and confronted my father.
I don’t remember asking anything about the circumstances of that first marriage — who she was, how it had ended. I only wanted to know about the boy.
His name, I was told, was Hugh Evan. He was five and a half years older than my older sister. And in the 1940s he had lived with his grandfather and his mother in Chicago.
My father didn’t have — or at least didn’t give me — an address than was less than 20 years old. He didn’t have a picture more recent than the one I had found. I can’t say that he actively discouraged me from trying to find my brother. But he didn’t go out of his way to help.
Now I’m not one of those people who started out in genealogy as a teenager. I was as green about trying to locate records as it was possible to be.
And I had exactly zero luck. Nobody by that name in the phone books. Nobody I could find in the driver’s license records or the draft records or any other kind of record I could think of — and had even a clue about how to access.
And months later, just about Thanksgiving, I was about to give up. I couldn’t think of anything else to try. I didn’t know there was such a thing as genealogy — or genealogy groups that might help.
But just before throwing in the towel, I decided to try one more thing.
I picked up the phone, called Chicago information, and asked for a telephone number for my brother’s grandfather at that more-than-20-year-old address.
And the operator gave it to me.
I remember being absolutely dumbfounded. It had never occurred to me that the family might have stayed in one spot, just waiting to be found.
It took a few days to get up my courage and to figure out what I wanted to say. Finally, right around the beginning of December, I called that number. An older man answered the phone. I asked for my brother by his full birth name and got 30 seconds of silence in response. Then the older man spoke.
“Who are you?” he asked. “And what do you want?”
How do you begin to condense years of wanting someone who’s missing from your life into a 30-second please-don’t-hang-up-on-me answer to questions like that?
I don’t remember what I said. I do remember the moment of silence after I finished my explanation.
Then the older man spoke again. He was my brother’s grandfather, he told me, Edward Anderson. And, I later found out, a retired Chicago police detective. He told me my brother was called Evan. He would not tell me where he was. But, he promised, if I sent a letter to his address, he would see to it that Evan got it.
It was as much as I could have hoped for under the circumstances. I thanked the man, and took a few more days to carefully write out what I wanted to say.
I probably mailed the letter around the fifth or sixth of December. It would have gotten there by perhaps the 10th or so. And Edward Anderson gave it to Evan right around December 15th.
And, on the 17th of December, Edward Anderson died.
I didn’t know about that death when Evan answered my letter early the next year. When he sent a photo that showed how much he resembles my older sister.
I didn’t know about it when we spoke for the first time on the phone and when we discovered that we both had learned to scuba dive and shared a love of certain books.
Or when we met for the first time and when I knew, for the first time, the joy of hugging and being hugged by the brother I had been missing from that day in that attic all those years ago.
But I have thought about it, time and again, in the years since I started doing family history, since the day when I first recorded the key facts of my brother’s mother’s family.
Since the day when it first dawned on me, just what a close thing it had been.
If I had waited just a few more days before getting that phone number.
If I had called a few days or weeks later.
If I had waited a week or two more before sending that letter.
If it had arrived just a few days later than it did.
If any of those things had happened, Edward Anderson wouldn’t have been able to give Evan my letter. And I don’t know if anyone else would have been as faithful as he was to his promise to make sure it got into Evan’s hands.
Oh, I believe, knowing what I know now about genealogy and research, that I would eventually have found Evan. Just the power of today’s internet would be enough now.
But we would never have had the years we have had. The times we have had. The fun we have had.
The sheer joy of knowing the boy in the picture.
The boy who celebrated his 70th birthday yesterday wrapped in the love of both sides of his family.
His wife. His children and, now, a grandson. His many relatives on his mother’s side.
His brothers, sisters, nieces and nephews on his father’s side, too.
And, I can’t help but think, smiling down on it all, a grandfather who kept his promise. And who gave me the gift of so much more time than I might otherwise have had with his grandson, my brother.
The boy in the picture.
Happy birthday, Evan.