My first memories of my oldest brother do not center on his presence, but on his pictures. My parents first born, Jimmy, as he is known to all of us, is a professional photographer. By the time I came along, my brother had left the homestead and was embarking on new adventures in California, of all places. California, in my imagination, was about as far away from rural northeast Arkansas as someone could get. Jimmy had gone there because, as my brother Ron recalls, he had always had a desire to leave. Unlike my brother, Ron, who always believed he belonged in Arkansas, my brother Jimmy most certainly understood that he did not. Ron recalls Jimmy telling him that as soon as he was old enough “I’m out of here!” Jimmy made good on that promise, and maybe it was his absence that caused me to speculate about his whereabouts and activities.
Maybe this is why Jimmy’s photograph of the time-elapsed lights of cars on a California interstate captured my gaze for hours. The picture set atop our family television set, a bulky monstrosity that was a feature of late seventies and early eighties furniture. The picture was prominently displayed atop the television set. Jimmy’s portrait was set beside it serving as a shrine to the eldest Loyd’s absence in our home. Certainly, Jimmy wasn’t dead, but it was obvious that he was missed. Jimmy was the oldest child in our family and I was the youngest. He was living his life as mine was just getting started. Through my childish eyes, Jimmy was a brave explorer who set out to sea, while I remained safely sitting on the pier.
Perhaps these memories loom so large for me because of the inordinate amount of time I spent in front of that big television set, and how often I was distracted momentarily from the content of the T.V. to imagine the adventures of my big brother–a brother whose presence I couldn’t remember. When I turned five years old, I remember the excitement I experienced when my mother handed me an envelope we received in the mail from Jimmy. Inside was a birthday card with a characterchure of an Indian chief announcing “Happy birthday! You’re five!” Inside the card was a crisp five dollar bill. I can’t remember how I chose to spend the money, but I do remember vividly the experience of receiving it. The simplicity of the gesture etched an image indelibly into my brain, an image of my brother as a kind cosmopolitan benefactor who escaped the malaise of our rural existence for the excitement of Hollywood. Of course, none of this was reality, but try telling a five-year-old that.
Eventually my brother did return to Arkansas, with a bride. His mystique was only amplified by his presence. To me, Jimmy was exotic, worldly, different from me but similar. One aspect that I’ve never been able to escape is how much we look alike in appearance. In fact, frequently both my mom and dad would mistakenly call me “Jimmy.” This most certainly served to inform my obnoxious behaviors as a child and young adult as more than anything I wanted to be seen, heard, anything but ignored. Thankfully my big brother did not ignore me on his return, although I’m sure I did sometimes annoy him. Jimmy experienced some personal setbacks including a divorce from his California bride, and moved back in with us for a time. This brought my brother, who up to this point had been distant and removed, up close and personal. My big brother did some things that I hadn’t witnessed other adults in my life doing like reading the newspaper. After he would finish with the evening newspaper, I would pursue it, turning one big page after another. I would also often overhear my brother listening to different kinds of music and motivational speakers on cassette tapes. These were different voices than those I typically heard in my life. If it wasn’t a gospel tune or preacher, I wasn’t exposed to much else besides Cronkite’s soothing delivery of the evening news. These sounds emanating from my brother’s bedroom were novel and like the siren’s call to a lost sailor at sea, I couldn’t resist the allure.
After Jimmy left our house again, this time bound for New Orleans, I inherited his room. As I regaled in the treasure trove of the many cassette tapes he left behind and the miscellaneous newspapers and magazines that filled the bedroom, I found a set of my brother’s instructional photography books buried deep in the last drawer of the bedroom dresser. These books covered every conceivable angle of the art and science of photography, including lighting, film development, and the latest innovations of the technologies available at the time.
The books were mildly entertaining, but one volume was absolutely life changing. The stars aligned, the heavens opened, and in a serendipitous convergence of pubescent hormonal rage, adolescent angst, and boredom, the likes of which can only be experienced at the end of a gravel road in the middle of a Arkansas bean field on a hot summer day, as I found my brother’s volume of instructional photography of nudes. To my delight, the book was illustrated with numerous models demonstrating proper lighting techniques and effective posing. Studio and outdoor settings informed the curvatures of the female physic in various degrees of undress. I learned that hats, shoes, and strategic arrangements of jewelry are very important to capturing the right image. Then I felt bad for looking at the book, but not bad enough to reveal the existence of the book to my mom. The bad feelings subsided. In moments of weakness I’d return to the images. I’d feel bad again, rinse and repeat. Eventually mom found the books and removed them, she was pretty upset. So was I, but for different reasons.
My big brother Jimmy obviously made an impact on me in what he left behind. But he also continues to make an impact on my life because of how he forges ahead. Jimmy is resilient. Jimmy moved around the county, from New Orleans onto Houston, continuing to make a life for himself as a photographer and in the process giving the world a beautiful gift in some amazing children. Children that from time to time I’ve been honored to interact with, including two amazing, beautiful, intelligent young women. My niece Kymberly, is a wonderfully creative social media influencer with beautiful children of her own and a passion for advocacy that resembles my own, and my niece Kayla is one of our nation’s finest serving as a soldier and now police officer. These two young women in particular, along with Jimmy’s other children serve as a point of pride for our family, and as I think about it, perhaps that is the most fitting legacy any of us can have, whether we simply pass along our genetics through our children or we pass along our wisdom to those we influence ever so slightly or greatly.
Jimmy continues to influence, enjoying semi-retirement now with his bride Pam as they soak up Arizona sunshine. Jimmy always made it a point to come home to Arkansas most every Christmas, where he would spend extended time with my mom and dad and occasionally with the rest of us. Everytime I talk with mom, she makes a point of telling me how Jimmy is doing. Mom finds comfort in telling me about their conversations, especially when she and Jimmy talk about church and the belief they share that we are living in the End Times. I know mom loves Jimmy and is proud of him, as she loves all of us. Jimmy captures the world with his camera, this is the tool of his trade. I suppose we all have a way of capturing the memories of those around us, the events both tragedies and triumphs that define are lives. Jimmy has his pictures, I have my words, and we all have each other with all of the beautiful complexity that comes along with being human.
Jimmy still brings his camera with him to family events, as he is the designated photographer. In an age where cameras are everywhere, embedded in the technology of our smartphones, Jimmy carries his conventional camera, a throwback tool designed exclusively for photos. Jimmy, my elder brother, was at times a prodigal son, but no matter what was going on with him, he kept on taking pictures. In this way, Jimmy is a bit of a throwback himself, and like my brother Ron there is plenty that we disagree about, but for me Jimmy will always be defined by his photography. In my earliest memory he was as mysterious as the California freeway he documented in that picture setting atop our television set. In some respects Jimmy still carries some of that mystique, showing up in various and sundry locations around the country; you can count on Jimmy to document those experiences with a picture. His talent has garnered him numerous awards and the gratitude of countless students and subjects including Cindy Crawford and Willie Nelson. But the most important picture Jimmy takes every year is of all of us; it is a highlight of family gatherings. As the years pass, so do people from the frame, most notably my Dad will be absent from the photograph this coming year. But Ron, Kim, and my beloved Mother are still there with all of the extended family to join us.
And Jimmy will take the picture, because elder brothers and prodigal sons are equally welcomed at home.