A Picture’s Worth

I found this photograph
Underneath broken picture glass
Tender face of black and white
Beautiful, a haunting sight

“Photograph,” R.E.M. with Natalie Merchant

but if you look long enough,
you will be able to see me.

“This Is a Photograph of Me,” Margaret Atwood

I’m afraid of everyone

“Afraid of Everyone,” The National

There’s a joke I repeat quite often: When I was in high school, I had scoliosis, owned 7000 comic books—and no girlfriend.

People usually laugh, and then I add: That isn’t funny; it’s true.

This is me circa mid- to late 1970s, silk shirt and barely visible brace for scoliosis:


The hair, glasses, and 70s fashion weren’t exactly working for me then. But many years before the four years in a full-body brace, I had already begun practicing all the survival skills needed for my anxiety, introversion, and crippling low self-esteem (terrified I was not and never would be the sort of masculine man that my father had imprinted on me).

It has been a couple years now since my parents died. My nephews, who my parents raised, and I cleaned out my parents’ house, and my oldest nephew, Stephen (who we call Tommy) gathered all the photographs, himself a photographer, to have them scanned. He sent the first almost-900 files yesterday.

Stephen (Tommy) and I also share a namesake, my grandfather, Paul Lee Thomas (I am the second) who everyone called Tommy.

A young Stephen (Tommy) with Paul (Tommy).

As I looked through the collection, I was texting Stephen, and we agreed that this experience is bittersweet, deeply sad but quite wonderful. The pictures are jumbled in time, and most have no information or date, forcing anyone looking into memory.

Here I am in Enoree and Woodruff (childhood homes) on a tricycle and bicycle.

These are my parents, and I assume they are holding me, but the baby certainly could be my sister—although I think the collection reflects how parents over-photograph a first child (me) and then under-photograph the others.

These are certainly my parents, each with me.

The mandatory family photographs of the 60s are both wonderful and eerie (I looked drugged in one, and the outfits and colors, well, one must wonder). The one on the right brings to mind Buddy Holly and Mary Tyler Moore.

While I have no recollection, or would be guessing, with many of the photographs, some of the pictures have very vivid stories (which may be jumbled, I realize). I know once my mom sent a picture to her mother (Deed, who we called Granny); Granny told my mom she cried because we were so skinny. This is from the summer of 1968, and very well could be that photograph.


For three or four years, we rented a house in Woodruff, moving there from Enoree before moving to Three Pines in 1971. The rented house felt like my childhood home, and here is Mom lying in the sun in that backyard.


It is in that backyard (the mulberry tree my sister and I loved to play in out of frame to the left) where my sister, angry, threw a large pot at me, hitting my head and face, leaving a huge scab that was captured in my school picture that year.


But there are other childhood pictures that genuinely baffle me. Like why did my parents dress me as Inspector Gadget (well before there was Inspector Gadget)?


But mostly, looking through the photographs leaves me with a great deal of melancholy. My life-long battle with low self-esteem about my manhood seems wonderfully captured in these images—my dad in his Woodruff High basketball uniform and me in my WHS uniform, both number 3.

I was never the athlete my father was (him a four-sport letterman and captain of the first state championship football team), but I was always trying.

And I could not have anticipated that one of the most upsetting images is this one—my father (left), my grandfather (middle), and my uncle (right).


Looking through almost 900 photographs, a few times now, certainly has been a heavy task confirming a picture’s worth. It is a picture I have no recollection of, and little information about, however, that I think may be the me I recognize the most.


I did not yet know about the scoliosis, eight years before that would be discovered, but I am sitting as I would come to do, toward the edge of the footstool. My hands clutching my knees, I am fretful, an anxious face that I think no one really recognized as anxious or fretful.

I am scrawny. I seem to have a bruise or abrasion on my thigh. I am not sure I knew someone was taking this picture or I would have put on my show.

I was always trying to be funny, self-deprecating humor was my speciality.

My spine would curve, I would discover comic books and science fiction, and I would navigate high school with my jaw clenched to an adult life where the no-girlfriend joke always draws a laugh.