J. Woods Price was a Second Lieutenant in the 19th Virginia Cavalry during the Civil War. I recently came across his picture, or rather, two pictures, of him in a book. One is taken in 1861, his hair a little long, a mustache, a pistol in his right hand, poised across his chest; the other in 1907, that same face, those same dark eyes, but with an old man’s thinness, and a bushy white beard. I couldn’t believe how much the one looked like the other—I would have known it was he, the same soldier, even without the caption, even with the long white beard and the sudden—to me, at least—appearance of old age. The two pictures, side by side, seemed like proof of the most elusive element in our lives: time. This man, I thought, he really fought in the Civil War, and survived, and grew old. Time did that. Time passed, and he died, and much later on, I came to fill out this space.
It’s the same sort of shock I get from old pictures of my grandfather, a dashing young soldier in his khaki uniform, a charming smile and his arm around a good-looking, dark-haired woman, that I realize, with a shock, an unexpected blowing of a fuse in my brain, is my grandmother. There was a time, long before I myself ever appeared, when they were both young and good-looking, with that ineffable vitality of youth, that charm of being, say, twenty-two. A war was going on, his war, over in Europe, out in the Pacific, and there he is, before his service, a Marine, his future uncertain. It’s strange to see the photograph and to feel that uncertainty in his gaze, in the way they’re standing, in the arm he holds, so casually, around my grandmother’s waist. I know what it was like, the door opens for me, and what lies before me is so real I can’t believe it isn’t happening now, right now, that the past could ever have given way to be filled with the present and its people and events. I know what my grandfather was like; I can see it in his pose, in the proud, assured stance he takes. He’s vibrant with expectation, but also resolute. I know him, and how he lived.
But that knowledge is probably filled in with bits of what I’ve been told, stories I’ve heard, the man I remember. This photograph of a soldier of the Confederate Army has taken me completely by surprise. I’m not sure what it is I read in his face, maybe a serenity that only posing in front of a camera could have given him, a depth to his eyes and an added intensity to his gaze. The two pictures beside each other give me a sequence for him, the in between, the enigma of one man’s life. Not improbable to encounter such a feeling looking at pictures of one’s own grandparents, whose set around the eyes, is, after all, not unlike your own, but strange and somewhat marvelous in a photograph of a man you never met, whose life, family, and occupation you cannot hope to know. The entire fact of his life for me is fighting in the Civil War, owning a pistol, surviving until 1907. My grandfather wasn’t born until 1917, and as far as I’m concerned, he died old. I can barely fathom my grandfather’s early life, the improbable three-year-old in a long white dress, but this Second Lieutenant, this J. Woods Price, is entirely beyond my ken. Yet I know him, a little. There’s something of that youth in him, that vigor, a sort of charm in his unlined forehead and resolute gaze. For whom was the picture taken? A mother, a sweetheart, himself? “This is what I was: young and alive.” And the other photo, where you see the young man, suddenly grown old, and you know that a life has gone on in between, a life that he lived, this man, whose youth turned so cruelly into hard old age. Yet the old man’s stance is not unfamiliar—he no longer has that vigor, or that charm, because those are the prerogatives of youth, but I read in his face the same certainty, and a life well-loved. Nostalgia, maybe, but I can’t find in the picture any lingering regret, the regret I feel, for this present, past.
There will be no going back. J. Woods Price had a grandfather, maybe, who started his own farm in the wilderness of Virginia, who told tales of the country “when it was young.” His descendants—if he had any—fought in World War II, unaware of these two pictures of their forbearer, holding a pistol. But these photographs are like a still pond, and resting at its bottom, beneath translucent water, is a past that was real. These events did happen; this man was not frozen in time. Time passed through him, changed him, altered his face and the lean, weary muscles of his arms; shook him, kicked him, from youth to old age, and each present moment was as alive to him as this breath is to me now. Time is a fabric into which we are all sown, and he and I inhabit this same cloth. His breath stirred this same air; he walked on this earth with my ancestors, and the only evidence of his existence now are these two photographs, with their still, unruffled surfaces, and somewhere, beneath the ground, the fragments of his bones.