The pictures from France did it. Before viewing them, really seeing them, for the first time, I’d thought I understood. I’d thought I understood my parents and their relationship. Their story. Their truth. But, I didn’t. Not by a long shot. Not until my brother, Donny, had the family slides made into a CD and I viewed them, wallowed in them, for hours, on my laptop, in bed, did I realize that there was something I’d missed. The photos stunned me.
I was born in Nice, France, during my father’s tour of duty there, but the family returned to the United States while I was still a toddler. Though I’ve no recollection of that time, the photographs illuminate my family’s truths in a way that rivals even personal memories. Images of my four older brothers, laughing and carefree, splashing in the crystal clear water of the Mediterranean Sea with our father; my parents, looking like movie stars, gazing into each other’s eyes as they walked arm in arm on some ancient, crowded street; the six of them striding down the Champs-Élyées, flowers cascading from my mother’s arms offered a tantalizing glimpse of the inside story, the missing puzzle piece. The most compelling are of my mother, alone, as she posed for my father’s camera. Alluring, radiant, glamorous, alive with adoration – leaning, languidly, on the newly purchased French chest, family heirloom today, in their home in Beaulieu-sur-Mer; glancing up from a balcony chaise, eyes full of love, from her newspaper, at my father’s camera when he called her name from an open window on the floor above. Even in the one he took of her, from behind, gazing out over the Seine from Pont Alexandre III, in which her expression can be seen only in my imagination, the love and happiness on her features are unmistakable.
Someone less versed in the family dynamic, someone less close to the situation, would hardly grant the snapshots a passing glance. To me, they were riveting. Who the hell was that couple, carefree, glowing, seemingly oblivious to the fact that they were dragging four rambunctious boys under the age of ten around Europe? During my formative years, they were a couple who loved one another, who shared a life and a mission, but under duress, sometimes extreme duress. I barely recognized those people in France.
There may be something wrong with me, or at least peculiar about me, that I spend an inordinate amount of time trying to sort things out in my mind. I yearn for that “click” sensation, that of a puzzle piece snapping into place. I want to sort out the experience my family went through. Understand how my parents endured, persevered, succeeded. I don’t recall being so preoccupied with my Dentonism, as my husband once referred to it, until I was grown up and out of the house. Which, since I was married and out of the house at twenty, was nearly forty years ago. But once that emotional search for the puzzle pieces got underway, oh, Lord, my mind has sometimes been a tumultuous place. I’m looking for that elusive puzzle piece.
The pictures of France jolted me. The plastic bins haunted me.
My mother and I talked about writing a book. The conversation never went past repeated declarations that we’d do it. Usually one or the other of us would say, during a rough patch, of which there were many, something along the lines of, “Someday we’re going to write the Real Story.” Line delivered with a smirk if it was I who spoke it. My mother wasn’t much of a smirker. She was too ladylike for that.
Kathryn Jane Maury Denton died on Thanksgiving Day in 2007. Her death came as a complete and utter shock to me, though it shouldn’t have. She was 81 years old, after all. Having been raised on the idea that Maury women live forever, I was completely unprepared to lose her. Her mother had lived well into her nineties. Her grandmother till past one hundred. And, Mom had never complained a whit about her health. Well, she’d mentioned a heart valve issue, but between her typical downplaying of anything that had to do with herself and my self-absorption, it never quite registered. I wasn’t ready. We still had that book to write.
It wasn’t until my father passed away last year and we finished the process of dividing his belongings, that I realized I have an obligation to write that book of ours. My brother, Jerry, aware of my obsession with Dentonism, but oblivious to the fact that I’m completely irresponsible and my filing strategy is of the stuff-it-haphazardly-in-a-drawer variety, wanted me to take Mom’s plastic bins labeled “Jane’s Book.” They sit, in my dining room, staring at me.
Jane Denton didn’t cart seven plastic bins of chronologically arranged files full of newspaper clippings, official correspondence, personal diaries, seventy years of letters from my father, Presidential letters, National League of Families receipts and meetings minutes, through five moves for nothing. She was a woman driven to clean closets. Practically every time I’d call her on the phone, she’d tell me she was cleaning out a closet or drawer, “getting rid of Stuff!” The bulk of the contents had only been moved five times: Virginia Beach to Norfolk after my father returned from Vietnam and accepted an assignment as Commandant of the Armed Forces Staff College; Norfolk to Mobile, when he retired from the Navy and they moved to his dream home on Fowl River; Mobile to Washington, when he served in the Senate; Washington to Mobile, when they returned to Mobile; Mobile to Williamsburg when they purchased and moved to their final home. The bulk of the contents had been moved only five times. But the letters. The letters from my father had been carefully moved, wrapped in ribbon, twenty times, to every duty station that my father was assigned. Through every step of his, their service to country. Within those boxes, the truth of my family is found.
It’s time to get it all down on paper. It’s time to put the puzzle pieces together. True the words on a catchy blogger graphic I once read: I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I wrote.