Tarnished and dented; a bauble from a bygone day.

You were given a box of artifacts once belonging to your Great-Grandfather who you’ve never known. Contained within the box is an old pocket watch, a key, some assorted personal papers and an old Brownie camera. You notice there’s still film in the camera. Take the film to get developed and write a poem about a photo you find. Or write about something found in the personal papers…or the key…or the pocket watch. You can use all of these items to include in your poem. Just see what develops.

Marie’s Take:

The photograph depicts a kindly gentleman. Though he is not smiling, his mischievous eyes are bordered by tell-tale smile lines. He is flanked by my grandmother and grandfather, and holds my then-infant father in his arms. I dig deeper into my great grandfather’s musty chest, discovering several more photos, each portraying the family man I never met.

A picture of Grandma Netta and Grandpa Al’s wedding day surfaces. And then another, and another. Great-grandpa is noticeably missing. Selflessly playing photographer? I smile, and keep searching.

I open what appears to be a photo album, yet it contains no photographs. Instead, the pages contain letters from Italy, written in Grandma Netta’s brother’s hand. There appears to be several month’s worth, at least. As I skim the pages, I see, “Netta and I were invited to perform at a private party last night. All eyes were on her. She looked great, Pop. Guys are flocking. Your plan might work. Give Ma hugs from both of us. We’re having the time of our lives, yet we can’t wait to get back home to the States. We miss you both.”

Confused, and intrigued, I read on. “Since last I wrote, Netta has received two proposals of marriage. She seems agitated. She wrote Al another letter today. She’s written him every day since we arrived. Pop, I think your plan may be backfiring on you. It seems absence is making the heart grow fonder.”

My pulse quickens. Further reading confirms my suspicion: Great-grandpa sent Grandma away to Italy for an extended time as a last-ditch effort to break up her pending marriage to Al. Her brother was sent as her escort, but also to spy and report.

Though I never learned his reasons for trying to block Netta and Al’s marriage, I saw with my own eyes that he did not hold a grudge forever, and neither did they. Perhaps photographs cannot always tell stories, but they are history-sated. I’m thankful for the outcome portrayed in the photos in Great-grandpa’s chest.

… and I’ve learned to be thankful for my very existence.

Walt’s vignette:


Tarnished and dented; a bauble of a bygone day.
In a wooden cigar box; keepsakes both, with
little more function than that. The stem fused
to the casing, the workings have retired. But,

it has inspired me to find the link. The contents
of the box play like a road map; clues to unravel
the mystery that is my history. The key, worn and
encrusted with years of dirt and oils from feeble fingers.

It lingers in my hand for a moment, its uncertainty secured.
Papers, folded and bound with a frail rubber band
line the bottom of the box. A visa document,
possibly a first issue wrapped in a tissue to protect

what it meant to an old Polish immigrant determined
to become all that America had to offer. Naturalization
documents, meant to pronounce his acceptance
of a lifestyle long sought, and their acceptance of him

as one of the free and brave. The camera buried amongst
the treasures, bellows cracked and torn, a forlorn
instrument with which a part of his life had been preserved.
It all deserved a better fate, but it is too late to shed

a single tear from your eyes for its demise. The puzzle
is splayed before you, the detective of your past.
A torn swatch of a fabric, hues faded but shades
of blue and red and white pressed between pages.

Finally, one last piece remains. A photograph.
a dark and handsome young man; heavy jacket and
a fedora pulled down across the brow. Intermingled
with other similar folk unconcerned for their purpose.

But the subject stands tall. Proud. Posed to save
this moment in memory, and upon this daguerreotype
for long after. In the background, Lady Liberty stands strong.
In his hand an American flag clutched to his chest.

A chain from buttonhole to vest pockets and a key as a fob,
a cinch to keep his pride from bursting. It insinuates
the only part missing was the watch that sat tucked
close to his left hand. A trinket; a remembrance

of the father he had left behind in Igolomia, Poland
to claim his dream. It remains strong in your own heart
as the box that holds your Great-Grandfather’s declaration secure.
You are sure the timepiece marked his life as well as your own.

37 thoughts on “DEVELOPING STORY – PROMPT #22

  1. This is such ironic timing, because I had just written a poem this week about my great-grandpa, the train conductor, who ended his life by standing on the tracks and getting hit. He wore a pocket-watch just like the one above… maybe I’ll go back and give him a happier ending, who knows!

    Marie, don’t see much fiction from you, and it is most welcome! Your conjuring of the romance that almost didn’t happen (as it was in those days, decreed) took me back to the day.

    Walt, your poetic embrace of your ancestors was so touching. I can see the fedora, the pocket watch, the “Americanized” young Pole. Strong writing! Amy

    • Thanks Amy. The photo is of my Grandfather’s pocket watch that I have. It’s in major disrepair, but growing up with him, it has major sentimental value. The entire scenario is real. The watch, the key, his naturalization papers, the cigar box…I learned much of life from him.


    • Thank you, Amy and Benjamin! Yes, mine has a basis in truth as well. Interesting family history!

      WONDERFUL piece, Walt.

      Marie Elena

  2. Walt and Marie – loved both your pieces.
    Amy – your piece about your great-grandpa was very moving – saw it on your blog just the other day.

    Here’s my attempt.

    Trinkets (a kyrielle)

    A shadow hidden at the back
    of her dresser drawer caught my eye
    the day the movers came. I thought:
    we keep things though we don’t know why.

    A hundred foreign coins, a stack
    of travel documents signed by
    some long-dead border guard who fought
    to keep things though we don’t know why,

    a broken pocket watch, a black-
    and-white shot of a compound high
    in India, crammed in a box
    to keep things though we don’t know why.

    Tracing the alligator track
    around this lid, I think of my
    own collections, what I just bought
    to keep things though we don’t know why.

    Time stands still in keepsakes. We track
    our past with trinkets that defy
    every explanation sought.
    We keep things though we don’t know why.

  3. Old History

    My grandfather stood ramrod
    straight at ninety-four–stern, a bit
    of a penny-pincher–but lost
    the will to exist without
    my grandmother. Now, here is
    this mysterious box, musty
    from all the seasons spent
    in Russia, the hated home
    grandfather escaped from
    to avoid army service.

    What did his own father
    think of him? Was the run
    for his life sanctioned by
    family? I could not read
    the written Russian hand
    faded to tissued print. A pocket
    watch emerged oddly locked.
    I twisted a tiny gold key
    and was rewarded with a secret
    compartment containing a tiny
    oval scrap of photo, two faces.
    The man’s bore strong resemblance
    in his large dark eyes and dour mouth.

    I’d like to think my great-grandfather
    had given his blessing, prayed
    for his son to thrive in dreams
    of a better life.

    The camera was empty –
    at least nothing showed
    on the developed paper.
    Great-grandfather never saw
    his son again. I hoped they
    had held warm memories.

  4. “But Stopped Watches . . .”

    Light leaks through walls,
    seemingly solid.
    The heat of years
    takes its toll,
    leaving tantalizing hints
    still on film.
    A face in clear focus,
    looking in at eyes
    which match,
    detail for detail
    but the thoughts
    and dreams
    are faded
    into rusty trinkets.

  5. Thank you, Jane, for this story that I can easily envision. Intriguing!

    Luna’s Lips
    (By Jane Shlensky)

    The sun was white hot the day he took those
    pictures of Miss Luna, her hair swept up and twisted
    into a loose chignon at her neck, a few strands
    escaping down onto a high lace collar
    wilted under her chin on such a hot day,
    a locket around her neck that holds a key.
    Dapper in his three-piece suit, his watch fob dangling
    from that old timepiece his uncle gave him,
    he lifts his chin to accommodate a collar and tie
    that’s a bit too high for comfort.

    In one picture, she looks regally back at him,
    smileless, one hand placed on the back
    of an empty chair, her eyes burning him.
    In one, he puts his right foot on that chair,
    his boot cracked but shined, his coat unbuttoned,
    and his hat rakishly tilted above one mischievous eye
    that challenges her in its directness.

    Who took the third and fourth, of them together?
    Some passerby or a relative? A friend guessing
    the sort of wooing going on here?
    Of these two snapshots, one is a portrait,
    their heads lifted, looking stoically into the lens,
    her shoulder against his as she angles beside him,
    their hands just touching,
    as if to say, yes, we’re good-looking people,
    what of it?

    Perhaps the next shot was taken without
    their knowledge, just after the portrait shot,
    as he breaks away from his stodgy facade
    and grins down at her lifted smiling face,
    one hand squeezing hers and the other on her ribs
    as if they share a joke
    that may well last a life-time.

    The final shot on this unfinished roll of film
    is blurred and of poor quality,
    but had to be taken by him. I want it to be.
    Half of the dizzy exposure is
    the fingers of the left hand
    partially covering her slightly puckered lips.
    A kiss, left undeveloped.

    Knowing what their lives will be, that they will
    bear eight children, one of them my father, and suffer
    hardship and loss makes me wish they had seen
    these pictures on one of their worst days
    and remembered how they were when they were young,
    when he was Mr. Charles and she was Miss Luna
    with hope in their eyes and a reckless crazy
    love in their hearts, too ready to leave what was home,
    and take on the world together.

    Maybe all families are outrageous
    and broken in their own way,
    and ours was and is no exception.
    Crazy spells punctuated all our stories of growing up,
    foolishness battling violence for a place in the world.
    I don’t know why it makes me feel better
    knowing that my grandfather once hoped
    to record my grandmother’s kiss
    to carry with him,
    but it does.

  6. The Eyes Hold The Key

    The key belongs to something small, but what?
    Rummaging through the baby blankets, spats and gloves
    a small well worn box peaks from under an old scarf.
    Locked, of course; does the key fit? Yes.

    Lifting the lid, I see a hanky, a postcard,
    a scribbled note in need of translation.
    Time stands still at 8:43 on an old railroad watch.
    A photo torn in two pieces falls to my lap; time stops, again.

    A pair of identical eyes stare at me from both halves.
    New but familiar, these are the eyes I see
    in the mirror each day. The eyes I see
    when I look at my father and his father.

    Who are these children, both in dresses and bonnets?
    One is wearing a locket, the other is not. Two girls,
    two boys, one of each? Seemingly identical, down to
    the pursed lips. But we have no twins in our lineage.

    Gattino the cat rubs against my leg, bringing me back
    to the present. I have a plane to catch and the trunk
    is too big. But the box and the photo will travel with me
    as they unlock this new journey I must take.

    • Oh, Kelly, full of intrigue! It’s like the start of a good Hitchcock movie in drama, yet the ending will be more fulfilling… however it should turn out…

      I think this could be the basis of a novel, personally. Amy

      • I agree 100% Have you ever considered writing a novel, Kelly? Or novella, or collection of short stories?


      • Thanks gals. Yes, Marie I toss around the idea of writing a novel etc. from time to time. Ideas like Uncle Joe’s journal from that 1929 trip to Italy spark my creativity…however, i can barely squeeze out time to contribute to the PB prompts let alone consider a book!

    • I hear ya, Kelly. *sigh*

      So, you’ve read the journal, eh? I didn’t use the real names (obviously), but that journal is amazing. What a story! It truly would make a great novel, or movie. Drama, travel, adventure, comedy, intrigue, romance … it’s got it all. =)


  7. Great stories, Marie Elena and Walt.

    I’m trying to force myself do work on revision. (like pulling teeth) So, nothing new. (no writing until I revise, says the taskmistress) But I did find one that needs work (needs more still) and goes along with the prompt.

    The Woman in the Background

    The room is behind her. We are behind her.
    We see her as a blur at the window;
    gray clouds and leafless thorns almost visible through her.
    She is somewhere else. We know her eyes are closed.

    She sees herself Center Stage. Harpstring. Diamond. Passion.
    The barely breathing audience hangs from her whisper,
    leaning in one body to her. They want what she wants.
    The room is behind her, we are behind her.

    The camera can only read a layer or so, of her mind;
    its simple focus cuts a silhouette, casts a puppet shadow,
    failing to project the woman veiled in lens flare.
    We see her as a blur at the window.

    She was the middle child. Always the Mediator,
    her role to smooth away conflict, easing
    others’ lives. Her own desires, she has thinned away, with
    gray clouds and leafless thorns almost visible through her.

    She is an abstraction to the viewer
    She might be listening to breakers curling over fractured rock,
    or planning fratricide.

    She is somewhere else. We know her eyes are closed.

  8. As I said, I recently wrote of my own great-grandpa and his conductor’s pocketwatch, so the prompt was like “Twilight Zone,” but the camera brought a different twist. I do have the portrait, hanging on my wall, only my mom didn’t develop it. Other than that, this is a true story. Amy

    Portrait of Great-grandpa and Mom

    Mom told me her Grandpa
    died on the tracks
    The storied train conductor
    lay down to relax

    and died as he’d lived
    in his suit so fine
    Forty-some years working
    the Rock Island Line

    They found him, right hand flung out
    They opened his palm
    His prized pocket-watch was
    still perfect as a Psalm

    They went to the shack
    built around his prize
    A massive telescope;
    Mars seen with his own eyes

    and papers lined in ink
    detailed her Grandpa’s plan
    that someday on the moon
    a spaceship we would land

    Mom spied a camera
    sitting on a shelf
    slipped it her in pocket;
    this, she’d do herself

    Three pictures on that film
    One of his cherished Scope
    One, her grandma making
    homemade lavender soap

    The last, my mom and grandpa
    Great-grandfather Dunn
    In full conductor-timepiece suit…
    to his long leg she clung

    That picture, now in sepia
    hangs upon my wall
    A testament to dreamers
    no matter how they fall

    In death, he chose his exit
    In life, he held such hope
    Great-grandma washed his broken body
    in homemade lavender soap

    © 2011 Amy Barlow Liberatore/Sharp Little Pencil

  9. The Inscription Inside

    There wasn’t a tick or a tock
    left on Great-grandfather’s pocket watch.
    But the inscription was etched in my head
    a vision seen once…I could never forget,
    With love, Ella Mae scrawled inside.

    But in photos faded and gray,
    it was not the mysterious Ella Mae
    standing by Great-grandfather’s side.
    Instead stood his beautiful bride,
    who did not cry when Great-grandfather died.


    Amid the musky attic shelf

    (rat infested, I might add)

    a Swiss cheese box from years ago

    (remnants of some rodent’s feast)

    is begging for attention so

    (I start talking to myself)

    I peek inside, my heart a drum

    (perhaps my voice will scare them off)

    with shaking hands I dig within

    (I hope no mouse surprises me)

    a Polaroid I find therein

    (survived the rat attack, I guess)

    that clearly screams “print me” at once

    (a picture of the Rat King?)

    I follow through to my surprise

    (I’m now humming very loud)

    are Grampa B’s smiling eyes

    (a treat well worth the other threat).

  11. Pingback: Friday Freeforall: Of Prompts and Poetry « Margo Roby: Wordgathering

  12. Connections

    I always wanted to meet my Great-Grandfather,
    we share a birthday you know,
    a special connection –

    I have his pocket watch,
    It doesn’t work anymore
    But when I hold it,
    I feel warmth,
    A memory,
    And time stops. . .

    And I see a boy running through
    the fields of his grandparents’ plantation
    and the bagpipes are playing in the background
    and every story I was ever told about my Great-Grandfather
    comes to life.

    I set the watch down
    and pick up the old key and
    turn it around and around in my fingers,
    imagining the door,
    in the house,
    that it might have belonged to
    but now it is just a key
    with no home.

  13. I nearly missed posting before the week ended…it’s been a non-writing week (ok…nearly two weeks) for me, but I didn’t want to miss a PB prompt, yet. So…here’s my feeble attempt to eke out a little something…


    Whose is this? I ask.
    My great-grandfather’s?
    I did not know my parents, let alone
    those who came before them.

    What’s in it? I ask.
    A box of trinkets.
    Memories of those
    whose names I’ve never known.

    Will it change me? I ask.
    These bits of my past
    are my only connection
    to people whose blood I share.

    Must I look? I ask.
    No. I decide.
    They will remain
    memories unknown.

    P. Wanken

  14. Pingback: Memories Unknown « echoes from the silence

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