The photography had survived from 1904. On the backside printed neatly read, "June 1904" and then scratched in pencil, "Mother in Wales."
In seventy-five years there had been little change in the photograph except its quaint juxtaposition in the middle of the recent artifacts of human industry.
He was sitting behind an aluminum table in the kitchen, pushed against two windows facing out over the cloistered roofs and trees of the East Bay, toward the erect, frenetic skyline of San Francisco now laying under blue, clear skies and a bitter cold that dropped a frozen palm on everyone.
Directly outside the window birds darted between the stark branches of an elm as though they were drunk on berries, diving between the branches to escape the chill and warm their tiny hearts.
The pile of letters, postcards, photographs awkwardly slid from the table and were resting over a few pieces of china and a volume of a health encyclopedia dated 1900 with pictures of tight Victorian women standing erect and trussed to the side to demonstrate proper position.
At his feet sat a portable TV with the cord neatly folded and fit between the plastic handle.
Robert took a sip from the cup of coffee at his elbow and listened to the birds. It wasn't as if they were happy. The branches of the tree appeared to issue out of the trunk toward the sky and separate wickedly in every limb and twig so it looked like a candelabra with the branches shaped like bowls.
He pulled his jacket around him and went back to the photograph which showed the close-up, yellowed portrait of a relative he never knew about; profound, smooth nose and fatty cheeks whose rose color still came through the fading color of the photograph. Two blue swimming eyes and a ribbon in dark hair. Vague background as though she had posed in a photographers studio.
It was his duty, now, to look at each item. Most of them held no interest; that is, the exotic buttons, Chinaware, old books, Christmas cards from the 20's, ledger books, fabrics, and nick-knacks.
But he had to look at each item and decide rather quickly whether it would be kept or whether it would be thrown away or given to Goodwill. And now he was at the photograph wondering who was in the picture.
He was not excited by the prospect but it was a duty; family was important to Robert. It was important not to rock the boat and cause those incalculable waves. His memory of the old aunt was a pleasant one. He had no clue about the horrors done in the house. To Robert the aunt had been full of energy, with an ambiguous power, who wouldn't back down from any argument or opinion. Another aunt had told him, "she especially loved you when you were a boy. Don't you remember Robert? How she used to call you her little angel?"
"She made me work with her in the garden. She told me, 'now Robert, a young boy who's going to be a man starts by digging the Earth, then planting in it, and finally building on it so his hands get toughened. Not like a woman's soft hands.'
The aunt laughed. She sounded just like that.