The Last Photograph, 2008/2010


James Clay Hargis was my grandmother’s fourth husband, third if you ever heard her tell it. The second one didn’t count, I guess. “Out lived ’em all”, she’d say. The truth is the second one did die before her, but they weren’t married when he passed away. He died in a mental institution somewhere in Tennessee, in what year, I do not know. She never really talked about him and I barely even remember his name. All that exists of him and their time together are two photographs. In one he is wearing an aviation cap, leather jacket, and scarf. The photograph is taken from the chest up. He is, perhaps, standing in front of a painted backdrop of a cloudy sky. It’s the kind of photograph exchanged by lovers. He looks dashing, coy, and impossible. The other photograph is an image of him at one of my grandmother’s family reunions. He sits amongst an enormous gathering of people. While everyone is smiling, wide-eyed, facing the camera, he kneels, head tilted facing the ground. His eyes gaze in an empty kind of way. It’s as if he is not even there.

My grandmother was studying to be a teacher. He was a pilot. She married him soon after having lost her first husband only four months and twenty-three days after their wedding. Bob Linehan was the love of her life. My grandmother’s second husband must have come calling only a few months after he was killed. They were married shortly after. Soon he began locking her in the house for sport. He would run around to all the windows, climb up a ladder, and peer down below to watch her panicking about the house. He would laugh a high-pitched laugh until he cried. And on occassion, he would fly his helicopter over their house, find her working outside, and chase her around the yard with the blades of the propeller loudly cutting through the air.

My grandfather came next and late in life, at the age of 78, my grandmother married James Clay Hargis. They were reunited at my grandmother’s 50th class reunion at Austin Peay State University. In college, Grandmother was the SGA President, which meant throughout the reunion weekend, she made speeches. After each speech Papa Clay would give her a standing ovation. Throughout the weekend, to my grandmother’s surprise, his place card would serendipitously appeared next to hers.

They wrote letters every week for a year following the reunion. Once, he invited her up to Tennessee for a weekend trip. And even at 78, with three husbands in the grave, she refused to stay overnight with a man unless they were married. On a long distance phone call, she declined his invitation. His response was “well what do you think I wanted you to come up here for?” They were married the following weekend.

His passing was the first time I saw my grandmother lose a husband. The night of his viewing she carried around with her a disposable camera. She greeted every guest with a smile and a “why thank you for coming” and sooner or later the same question, “Isn’t Clay the most handsome thing you have ever seen?” And she would go up to the casket, charge the flash and take his picture.