Essay: In My Office

Oct 24, 2019

Joanne Nelson has a framed photograph on her desk that makes her think about time, loss, and family. She explores these feelings in this essay, "In My Office."

In my basement office I keep a framed picture of my brothers and me. The three of us stand behind a kitchen table that features a three-tiered birthday cake and Currier & Ives coffee cups. The coffee looks freshly poured, an equal amount in each cup and no lipstick smudges on the rims. Forks are at the ready, and an ashtray rests left of center. The boys wear plaid shirts and I’m dressed in a white turtleneck that emphasizes my pale skin and long features.

Contributor Joanne Nelson (bottom right) with her brothers Kurt (L) and Dale.
Credit Photo courtesy of Joanne Nelson

Kurt holds a fishing pole, the new reel silhouetted against the pastel wall. He looks happy. This is his scene: the lit candles on the cake in the foreground are way too many for me. And Dale, looking grim, is positioned a shoulder behind Kurt. I’m tucked in between. One hand in Kurt's, the other behind a chair. Dale drapes his arm across me. I look about five, which makes Kurt 14 and Dale 12.

It's Kurt's day, but I try to claim the moment. My grin is contorted and my eyes are crinkled shut as I lean towards the camera. I had better shape up or I'll end up crying in my bedroom. Only Kurt’s smile appears true in this photo. He’ll soon leave us — even the simple present of rod and reel a ticket to somewhere else. Dale’s eyes are distant, his mouth a tight frown. His expression reflects bad shutter timing; he’s already closing his mouth for the final S of “cheese,” while Kurt and I continue enjoying that long E.

Dale was often out of sync with the rest of us.

A white board covered with computer logins and other things I shouldn't forget hangs above my office desk. Pay attention, a sticky note reads. So I return to that photograph, to wondering about Dale's arm draped over my shoulder.

Protection, I decide, continuing to want the story to be about me — not about some random positioning while Dale waited for the song to be sung and cake served. Maybe he sought comfort, connection with the one person not likely to yell at him.  Me as stabilizing factor — forever the baby and a girl to boot, always a blessing after two boys.

I don’t want to be the baby though, even the photo spells this out. I’m pulling away, while Dale tries to hold on. As we grow older, I’ll join the chorus of voices wanting him to work more, drink less. But he’ll remain the same sad boy in the picture and I’ll forget, for a long time anyway, how much solace is given just by standing next to someone. Then, years later, protection no longer possible, I’ll give a final gift of comfort when I hold Dale as he takes his terrible last breaths, his belly swollen from a broken, alcoholic liver.

The shelves of my office are jammed with books, snapshots of my daughters, unlit candles. All evidence of who I am now. One photograph includes my father, grandmother, brothers, Kurt's kids, and me. Dale rests his arm on our nephew’s shoulders, his mouth in that same childhood oval, as if he again missed the signal to smile. Dale had yet to meet his third wife, I hadn’t had children.

Those shelves hold the answer to why I’m down here: the books recounting tales of escape and the mementos that tell their own stories. It’s the dual perspective of the little girl held close by her brothers, safe behind glowing candles, and of the woman at her desk in a basement office — soft hum of the dryer, pictures of her family surrounding her — the woman who just wants to tell about it.

Lake Effect contributor Joanne Nelson lives in Hartland, Wisconsin and is the author of the forthcoming memoir, This is How We Leave.