Photography, Stories Told

Memories lost, memories created, memories kept

Photographs restore lost memories and anchor tenuous ones. Through them I catalog my memories and arrange them into timelines. They help me create life narratives in retrospect. But there is a time in my life from which I have few photos. I’m glad, as it is a time I don’t wish to remember.

Which is unfortunate, for my sons were very small then. I have a few memories, snippets and scenes, incomplete: Helping deliver them both. Months of Damion’s colic. His first seizure, a living room full of grave firemen and paramedics caring for him, loading him into an ambulance, me racing in my car to the hospital. A family road trip to San Antonio before his first birthday, miles of gray Interstate highways, getting a speeding ticket in Texarkana, Damion sleeping most of the way. A black depression that fell on me as he turned 1, and how I could find no joy in his day. Baby Garrett climbing the couch with all the steely determination of Chuck Norris chasing the bad guys. His deep misery after a tonsillectomy went wrong, me rocking him for hours while he cried, both of us sleepless. Singing to soothe them both. Making scrambled eggs for their dinner. Reading Dr. Seuss to them, one fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish. Bleak days in a deeply broken and destructive marriage, one which I lacked the courage to leave.

I know I can reach more memories of my sons, better ones. But to do that I would necessarily revisit traumatic memories. Good therapy let me work through that awful time. No need to relive it.

My first wife and I hadn’t given up hope yet in 2001. Or was it 2000? I’m guessing. The boys were young, 1 and 3, or 2 and 4. I don’t remember whose idea it was that I get away for a while, that we let raw nerves settle. We agreed it was essential. I booked a week in a cabin in the central Tennessee woods.

I’ve told some of this story before: I wanted to reclaim something of the man I had been, a man who had diminished and finally disappeared. I remembered enjoying shooting my old cameras as a teen. So I got out one I’d never used before, a Kodak Automatic 35F. I didn’t know an f stop from a shortstop, and this camera wasn’t as automatic as its name suggested. So I shot a test roll before I left. I am forever grateful to my then-self that I shot my sons around our yard. My older son, Damion, was very interested in the camera, so I set it and handed it to him. He made two photographs of me with his younger brother, Garrett. They’re terrific candid shots that remind me that there were good times for us.

Dad Garrett 2001 b

Dad Garrett 2001 c.jpg

Garrett was too little to operate the camera so I have none of Damion and me. But I did make this delightful portrait of him with our next-door neighbor’s house in the background.

Damion 2001 a

Most of the photos I took didn’t turn out well, as I truly didn’t know what I was doing. The best of the remaining shots is this one of them in our minivan. I hated that van, but love this memory.

Damion Garrett 2001 a

Mercifully and to everyone’s emotional health, the marriage ended. The next several years were hard in their own right: a protracted, brutal divorce followed by years of being broke paying the extensive legal bills and sky-high child support.

Desperate for stability and normalcy I set out to build new memories for me and my sons, to start fresh and make our way forward. One way I did that was by taking them on spring break trips every other year, the years the parenting-time guidelines gave them to me.

If you’ve read this blog for a long time you know I’ve shared photos from almost all of these trips, but never showed or wrote about my sons. While they were growing up, I kept their lives private. Instead I wrote stories about the places we visited and my experiences in them. Now, at last, let me share the reasons why these trips happened: my sons.

The first spring break was in 2005. I lived in a one-room apartment and paid the mortgage on a house I’d never live in again. That plus groceries, gas, and the electric bill consumed my paychecks. To scrape together enough money for fun, I skipped lunch and ate hot-dog dinners for weeks. We visited the zoo and the Children’s Museum, ate lunch Downtown, toured the Statehouse, and climbed to the top of the Soldiers and Sailors Monument to look out over the city. Here are the boys breaking the rules at the monument.

Indianapolis 2005

In 2007 we made an Indiana History Tour, driving all over the state to see scenic and historic sites. Here we visited the site of the Battle of Corydon, the only Civil War battle fought on Indiana soil.

Indiana History Tour 2007

In 2009 we visited Washington, DC, and drove the National Road home. It was probably our greatest trip, generating the happiest memories. Right up until the moment we wrecked our car.

Washington DC 2009

In 2011, we returned to the same woods where I’d retreated alone ten years earlier, this time with my sons to make new, better memories there. Our chief memory is of the afternoon we made a ten-mile hike carrying pint bottles of water. Wow, was that ever not enough water. I swear we each guzzled a gallon after we finally reached our cabin.

Tennessee 2011

In 2013 we drove Route 66 from Joliet, IL to almost the Texas line in Oklahoma. It was a dream trip for me, stopping for all the roadside attractions and staying at vintage motels all along the way. The boys seemed to have a good time, but today their chief memory is that “we spent the whole vacation sitting in the car!” Here the boys are in an old jail in Gardner, IL.

Route 66 2013

In 2015 we drove the old Dixie Highway down to Mammoth Cave. It was the last spring break with Damion, who graduated high school that year.

Mammoth Cave 2015.jpg

And this year Garrett and I did Cincinnati: the American Sign Museum, the zoo, the Taft Museum, the suspension bridge, Findlay Market, Jungle Jim’s.

Cincinnati 2017

There, you’ve watched my sons grow up! And I’ve relived these memories we chose to make together.

I chose not to wallow in the difficult past, but instead to move forward. To make the life I wanted, as much as I could. To be a good father to my sons and to create good memories with them.

Mission accomplished. Garrett graduated high school on Saturday.

I know from experience with my stepchildren that parenting doesn’t really end until around age 25. Our kids all need at least some parental guidance in those early young-adult years.

But it’s a new phase of life for me, of moving forward into life with my new wife. But this time I get to do it with memories intact.


These photos are © 2000-2017 Jim Grey. All rights reserved. I will not grant permission to republish them.

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Photography, Road Trips

The harbor at Killybegs

Indulge me, if you will, a brief return to the visit to Ireland my wife and I made last year.

I follow the film-photography blog of Roy Karlsvik, who makes his living as a sailor. He shares photographs of what are to him everyday places, most of which involve harbors and ships. But it’s all pretty exotic to me, a fellow living amid the cornfields in the middle of the vast United States.

But his next itinerary includes a stop at Killybegs, Ireland, a place where Margaret and I stopped for dinner one evening last September. The harbor was right behind our restaurant, so we walked out for a few late-dusk photographs. I like them, and I even shared one before, but this gives me an excuse to share more.

It’s cool to me that Roy’s world and mine overlapped this tiny bit.

Killybegs

Killybegs

Killybegs

Killybegs

Killybegs

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Stories Told

Wanted by the FBI

On my flight to Germany in the summer of 1984, engine trouble forced us to land in Düsseldorf rather than in Frankfurt as planned. Because Düsseldorf expected no international flights that day, nobody was working in customs. My passport went unstamped, and I waltzed into Germany uncounted. How very un-German.

Several weeks later, my group visited Berlin. The Wall would not fall for five more years. At Checkpoint Alpha on the East German border, grave, armed border police in fitted olive uniforms boarded our bus and, without looking at or speaking to anyone, collected all of our passports and exited. They made us wait more than an hour, our anxiety growing, before they returned with our passports (all tossed into a box) and waved us through. Each passport had received an East German stamp. The road from there to Berlin was bounded by walls so tall that we couldn’t see over them even from our bus seats way up high. I guess the communists didn’t want you to see the glorious living conditions on the inside, or everybody would want to move there. Several hours later down that road we were easily waved through the checkpoint at the West Berlin border.

Checkpoint Charlie

A few days later we crossed into East Berlin to see the sights. At the famous Checkpoint Charlie, stone-faced border police once again boarded our bus, collected our passports, and made us wait for a long time before they returned them all stamped.

Checkpoint Charlie

In East Berlin I walked in the Alexanderplatz, stood in line to buy a communist propaganda rag, er, newspaper (the top story that day was essentially how President Reagan was an idiot), drank beer and laughed with teenaged East Berliners, and tried to use a fetid underground open-pit public restroom. Shudder. I held it until we got back to the west.

At Checkpoint Charlie

In West Berlin, I bought a book called Durchschaut die Uniform, or See Through the Uniform, telling stories of border guards — not only about the distasteful jobs they did, but about the people they were. The last page showed two pictures of four border guards, the first with their stony faces and the second with wide smiles. The second photo seemed so strange! But I got the book’s point, which was to have a heart because these guards were real people. So I decided to put on a pleasant face for them on the way home. As we left, we passed back through Checkpoint Alpha. Dour border police boarded our bus and collected passports. When they took mine, I looked them in the eye and smiled. It was met with indifference. They just took our passports and inspected our bus for things we were not allowed to take out. Inspection successful, they left and we were free to pass through. We made our way back across free Germany.

A few years later I renewed my passport when it expired. I wondered if anybody at the passport agency noticed that my old passport contained stamps only from communist East Germany.

Then Iraq invaded Kuwait and the United States rode in on its white horse ostensibly to save the day. It was war, and I was draftable, so I was nervous about what might come.

At work the next day my co-workers were subdued and serious. I worked as best I could while I listened to news reports on the radio. Midafternoon, the receptionist called from the main building. “Uh, Jim?” she said. I could hear concern in her voice. She paused. “Uh… Jim, there’s a man from the FBI here to see you.”

My mind reeled for several seconds. My passport! They must have a file with my name on it! They think I’m red! They’ve come to carry away the commies!

“Jim?”

“Um. Yes. Tell him to drive across the street to this building.”

I stepped outside to await my doom. I paced under the gray sky, wondering what the internment camp would be like. Before long, a gray sedan turned in and parked. Out stepped a doughy man in a gray suit. He approached, showed me his ID, identified himself, and asked, “Are you James Grey?”

“Yes,” I replied.

“Is there a place where we can talk privately?”

My brain screamed, “Talk privately? Aren’t you here to purge the land of communists in the name of national security?” I was growing dizzy. I managed to mumble, “Sure, come inside.” I led him to an empty room and we sat down.

“Mr. Grey, do you know a man named Robert Woolf?”

I’ve heard stories about what happens to cars that are accidentally shifted into reverse while going 40 miles per hour. Namely, the car’s transmission suddenly disintegrates, distributing its pieces along the road. This is what happened to my brain at that moment.

In shock, I managed to say, “Yes, I know Bobby.” Where the heck was this going?

“I need to ask you some questions about Mr. Woolf.”

Bobby, a college friend and roommate, was a sharp, smart guy who majored in computer science and is now well-respected in his field. His senior year, as he looked for his first job, he applied at the National Security Agency. He was pretty jazzed about the job, but he never heard back from them. He applied for other jobs and eventually accepted one in Silicon Valley.

“Is this about the NSA job? Don’t you know that Bobby accepted another position?”

The agent paused. He may have swallowed. He said, deliberately, “Yes, every person I talk to tells me that. But I have to do these interviews anyway.”

So for twenty dull minutes he asked me questions about Bobby’s associations and character. I told him what I knew and he went on his way. I felt sorry for the guy having to drive all over the place talking with Bobby’s friends and family, needlessly looking for skeletons to qualify Bobby for a job he no longer wanted. I tried to empathize with the guy, but he’d have none of it. He stuck to his questions until he had no more to ask, and then he got back into his gray sedan and drove away.

I learned that it’s fruitless to try to connect with a government official doing a distasteful or useless job. They just want to get it over with.

But at least there was no internment camp for me!


This is this post’s fourth appearance: May, 2007; January, 2012; July, 2014, and today. I’m re-running it in response to the WordPress.com daily prompt, “Passport.”

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Photography, Road Trips

Strolling through St. Stephen’s Green

We had not been having a great experience in Dublin so far. And then we came upon St. Stephen’s Green. It changed everything.

St Stephen's Green, Dublin

Expensive tourist-trappy attractions, criminally slow restaurant service, large crowds and lots of noise everywhere — Dublin had been everything the rest of Ireland had not been. After a disappointing experience trying to see the Book of Kells, we knew we needed a break, a quiet place to walk and talk and hold hands. We were still on our honeymoon, after all! Google Maps told us this park was just a few blocks away, so we walked over.

Contemplating a pigeon

What a quiet respite it was! Like everyplace else in Dublin, it was loaded with people. But unlike everyplace else in Dublin, it was clear we were all there for a little peace. We found quiet, even a little solitude, in St Stephen’s Green.

St Stephen's Green, Dublin

This 22-acre park has existed in some form since around 1664, but was private until the Guinness family led an initiative to convert it for public use. Sir Arthur Guinness paid to have the park redesigned to its current layout, which opened in 1880.

St Stephen's Green, Dublin

As Margaret and I strolled through, the tree-rimmed area around the pond seemed the most remote. We forgot for a moment that this was in the heart of Dublin. All we could hear was the rustling breeze and the chirping of birds.

St Stephen's Green, Dublin

I think this part of the park did more to restore our spirits than any other.

St Stephen's Green, Dublin

Upon reading the little plaque describing this statue of the Three Fates, I was deeply moved. In German, Gaelic, and English, it expresses gratitude to the Irish people for help they gave to German children after World War II. The Irish provided foster homes for hundreds of German children whose families had died and whose homes had been destroyed during the war. While most of the children later returned to Germany, some remained, and were even adopted by their Irish families.

From the Germans

When we came upon this cute little house in the park’s southwest corner, Margaret declared, “There it is, our dream house!” Except that our morning commute to our jobs in Indiana would be challenging. Apparently at one time the park’s caretaker lived here.

St Stephen's Green, Dublin

We lingered for a couple hours, walking and talking and taking photographs. Soon our stomachs grew insistent that we seek sustenance, and so reluctantly we left.

St Stephen's Green, Dublin

But St. Stephen’s Green was a turning point of our time in Dublin. Reset and refreshed, we enjoyed our experience from here on out.

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Photography, Road Trips

The joy of wrong turns on vacation

My greatest irrational fear is of getting lost. All those road trips I take? Yeaaaaah, I map them out. I don’t want a wrong turn to lead me astray. One reason I take road trips is to face my fear. Someday I’ll have conquered it enough to head out with minimal prep. I’m not there quite yet.

Even with good preparation I still get lost sometimes. The worst time was on the National Road in Pennsylvania. An ill-marked detour left me driving in circles. My sons were with me, and they’ll tell you: dad was stressed.

Facing my fear of getting lost is one of the reasons I hit the road, even with good maps — or with GPS, as was the case as Margaret and I drove all over Ireland. My iPhone’s Google Maps app gave us great directions all over Ireland, except for this one time.

Among the rocks

Margaret is Irish; she has family in County Galway — family she’d never met before. A second cousin lives on an island in the county’s remote western region. It’s so far out there, and so few people live there, that all An Post needs to deliver her mail is her name, Lettermore, County Galway.

Among the rocks

Google Maps needed more detail than that, however, to find her house. We learned that she lives across the street from a business. We punched its name into Google Maps and glory be, there it was! Or so we thought. Because Google Maps brought us here.

Among the rocks

Nothing here but rocks! But it was a surprisingly compelling view. We lingered for several minutes to take it all in. We were glad to be misdirected; we would have missed this view otherwise. And although we were a little lost, just being with Margaret helped reduce my anxiety.

We went back the way we came and turned down the next road. Surely that’s what Google Maps meant? Nope. But at least there were some houses along that road. We stopped and Margaret knocked on someone’s door to ask. They knew Margaret’s cousin and gave us directions right to her front door. We had passed her house on the main road.

Margaret is a Joyce, and this is Joyce country. So is the entire Connemara region of County Galway, actually. There have been a lot of Joyces!

Margaret’s aunt was happy to meet us, and soon offered us a tour of the area. Margaret drove while her cousin navigated. One special place we saw was Inishbarra, a small island where Margaret’s grandfater was born and raised. We couldn’t drive to it; there’s no bridge, no ferry. I gather that at some times of the year the water is low enough you can wade out to it. Not that day, unfortunately. But at least we could see it from the road.

A view of Inishbarra

Here’s another view of the island, from a different vantage point. Margaret’s cousin pointed out the houses still standing on it and told us which of Margaret’s forbears lived in each one.

A view of Inishbarra

She then guided us to this church in nearby Lettermullan, where Margaret’s grandmother was baptized. This is maybe a mile from Inishbarra, but incredibly Margaret’s grandparents didn’t meet until both of them had emigrated to Chicago! It turns out that life on Inishbarra was self-contained. They grew most things they ate, and there was a school on the island. Until he emigrated, Margaret’s grandfather almost never left Inishbarra.

Church near Lettermullan

I was grateful for Margaret’s cousin guiding us down the narrow, winding coastal roads here, because I had no idea where I was or how to get out of here. The mobile signal was spotty at best this far out; Google Maps would be no help. Soon we were back on the main road, on which Margaret’s cousin lives. We soon bid our goodbyes and drove back the way we had come.

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Faith, History, Photography

A model for living the faith: Father McDyer and alleviating poverty in Glencolmcille

Christians get a bum rap these days as being bigoted and small minded. Perhaps it’s because some high-profile people who claim to follow Christ behave that way. Perhaps it’s because many people experienced a rule-based, condemning Christianity as children.

glencolmcilleirelandmap

Glencolmcille. Imagery © 2016 Data SIO, NOAA, U.S. Navy, NGA, GEBCO Landsat. Map data © 2016 Google.

But most Christians I know go quietly about their faith. The ones who live it out are involved in the lives of others, especially others in need. That’s what our faith is supposed to be: simply but actively passing along to others the love God has for them.

When Father James McDyer was assigned in 1951 to the remote Irish parish at Glencolmcille (Glen-column-keel) in western County Donegal, he found a people isolated and in poverty. Little paid employment was available. There was no industry, no electricity, no running water, and hardly a paved road. The rural people of Glencolmcille scratched out whatever bleak livings they could.

McDyer, born 1910, grew up in County Donegal. He knew this life. He saw many of his neighbors emigrate out of Ireland looking for better lives. It was part of a great outmigration; scores left Ireland in the early and middle 20th century.

Glencolmcille Folk Village

The folk village at Glencolmcille shows the conditions the people lived in when McDyer arrived. These thatched-roof huts, some original and some replicas, contain furniture and home goods typical of 1950s rural Ireland.

Glencolmcille Folk Village

To an American, “1950s” calls up images of suburban ranch houses and station wagons, televisions and refrigerators, freeways and skyscrapers.

Glencolmcille Folk Village

These simple dwellings and plain possessions are more in line with an American concept of the frontier eighteen fifties.

Glencolmcille Folk Village

McDyer set to work improving the peoples’ condition.

Irish farm life was largely confined to the family. McDyer saw that bringing people together, under common causes and in support of each other, was the key first step. He led them in building a community center, which volunteer labor completed in 1953.

He then worked to electrify Glencolmcille. He spent many of his days traveling, speaking to government officials to move his goal forward. Here he met stiff challenges, as the Irish government was heavily focused on attracting multinational corporations as the way to bring Ireland out of economic depression. This left no resources for rural areas. He was not above manipulating the system to meet his ends, and meet them he did, as electricity came to Glencolmcille in 1954.

McDyer also worked to create a municipal water supply and to pave the roads leading to Glencolmcille. In the early 1960s he spurred the creation of local industry in the form of industrial and agricultural cooperatives that processed vegetables and fish and created knitted goods. Finally in 1967, recognizing that tourism should be a vital part of Glencolmcille’s diverse economic portfolio, he led the creation of the Glencolmcille Folk Village.

Glencolmcille Folk Village

The Folk Village continues today as a tourist attraction. For a few euros, you can tour the impeccably maintained huts.

Glencolmcille Folk Village

One hut is a school. Pupils here wrote on slates until the early 1960s, when inkwells finally arrived. By this time, of course, American schoolchildren were moving away from fountain pens to ball-point pens.

Glencolmcille Folk Village

One hut is a typical home, another is set up as Father McDyer’s home and contains his personal possessions, and yet another is a general store and tiny pub. Together, they are a microcosm of centuries of rural Irish life.

Glencolmcille Folk Village

Before and after McDyer brought such life-changing improvements to Glencolmcille, the people certainly enjoyed a beautiful place to live.

Glencolmcille Folk Village

Hills and cliffs overlook the coast with its beaches. A horseshoe-shaped lagoon empties into the Atlantic Ocean. But surrounding natural beauty doesn’t feed families. McDyer’s efforts lifted Glencolmcille’s families out of abject poverty.

Glencolmcille Folk Village

James McDyer died in his sleep in 1987, leaving behind a region much improved, a people in much better condition.

This, then, is what a Christian, what Christianity, is supposed to do: seek the marginalized and help them improve their condition — and through this, help them meet and know God. Such gifts are not often given in this world. That these gifts are attached to a person doing God’s work, that they ultimately come from God, is what attracts people to the faith. It is the experience of God’s love and gifts on earth, and it is compelling.

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