The blender sounds in the kitchen to my left and my brother stands across from me at the opposite end of the hallway, a small ball at his feet. The hallway is long and the space between us gives me the time I need to strategize. I think about how fast I’ll need to run to catch him with the ball as close to his end as possible, steal it away, squeeze by, and kick it through his doorway. He asks me if I’m ready, his voice carrying over the sound of the blender and down the corridor. I shake my head. Quickly, I tear off my socks and throw them aside. I close the doors to the kitchen, bathroom, and our bedrooms so that the ball doesn’t fly out of bounds. Reaching out, I spread my arms and touch my fingertips to the walls on either side of me. We are enclosed in our imaginary, indoor field. I return to my starting position and give him the thumbs up.


Even in the daylight, the hallway is dark. Two flush mount ceiling fixtures shed a dim light on the off-white walls and the hardwood floors. Plain, black picture frames filled with long-dead relatives line the walls on both sides of the hallway, interrupted by the doors that join the passage to the other rooms of the house. The unknown yet familiar bodies wear mostly unsmiling faces.


Sometimes our ball travels airborne, ricocheting off the walls and shattering the protective glass of the picture frames, leaving most of the old photographs exposed. With their blacks and whites tinged yellow, the pictures, with or without glass, show a history of their own. I worry that the folds and creases that hide parts of people’s faces will worsen and erase more history. 


When I’m in the hall alone, without my brother or the ball, I examine the faces and scenes in the pictures. I ask my parents to tell me the names of the men and women and children who sit in rows, staring beyond the camera with furrowed brows and sealed lips. My mom doesn’t remember which bald-headed twin is which. My dad never knew who the woman in glasses was or what her relationship was to his mother’s side of the family. 


I ask my mom if I can have the pictures for my own hallway one day.


We move when I am thirteen and the photographs move with us. We settle into our new house; it’s the same square footage as our old one, but it is built upward not outward. There is no long and narrow hallway. We unpack clothes and books and art. The pictures stay in their box labeled “Hallway.” I don’t forget about them. I ask my parents where they will hang in our new house. It doesn’t feel like home without them. 


I know where the box is stashed away, and I go through them sometimes. I think about how I used to imagine that the gaps separating the photos on the wall would be filled by future generations. I remember how the photographs of my two grandmothers hanging side by side used to catch my eye. My dad’s mother is a little girl wearing a collared shirt with puffed sleeves and holding a small doll in her lap. My mom’s mother is a little girl, a few years younger, wearing a buttoned dress and a white bow in her curly hair, holding a small ball between her legs. I was surprised by the similarities in the pictures. These are the women I come from and now know.


I wonder about the young women I never knew, hiding their naivete behind alabaster veils on their wedding days. And the same young women posing languorously on rocks bordering running streams. And the same, and also different, young women sitting at tables topped with sewing and cutting machines. And the women who are absent from behind the cashier counter in the grocery store. These, too, are the women I come from.


I imagine stories about their lives in work and at rest. I see pictures of them working in textile factories. Their faces around tabletops remind me, too, of the kitchen. And I think of the sound of my mom operating the blender as my brother and I played our hallway game. The women’s fierce faces seem to be searching for something beyond the camera. I wonder if they are enjoying themselves together, and if there may be tension between them and the men who stand behind them in the factory, writing on notepads. I wonder how their working lives complicate the happiness and elegance I imagine for them in the very different photographs of them lounging, looking glam. In those, they remind me of movie stars.


I imagine a version of play that has less to do with ball games and more to do with independence. On rocks near streams, the women are pictured alone, smiling, entertained, and beautiful. Play, to me, had always been something that involved other people. The enjoyment of the women in these photographs gives me a sense of the power of independence. Maybe I romanticize these women. Still, I see strength, even under the camera’s gaze. Maybe I want to imagine that their strength will find its way to me. Or that I’ll absorb it by looking at the photographs, which now lie on the ground before me.

Do you enjoy reading the Nass?

Please consider donating a small amount to help support independent journalism at Princeton and whitelist our site.