Nothing is as it appears to be.
What is this aging? What am I to make
of these pale, brutal numbers? For a moment I’m fourteen.
— from She, a poem by Jim Harrison
I recently acquired photos of my grandmother that are very dear to me. I posted one picture of her on Facebook to share with family members who live out-of-state. Her great-grandchildren were astonished by the photo. I was too.
Suddenly, here in my hands, seven years after her death at 100, was my grandmother, resurrected as a charming, fresh-faced teen, full of life. The juxtaposition was startling. The pictures of her in my memory are of a white-haired elderly women, full of energy, opinions, and hard-scrabble wisdom. (I wrote a poem about her later years here.) Now I’m holding her youthful visage in my hands. It is stunning to see her look straight into the camera with just a hint of a smile. It is an era of her life I never knew, nor will I ever know.
It is certainly true that our past lives — the full telling of it anyway — recedes into an irretrievable past as each day passes. Snapshots reveal an image of who we were in a single moment of time. Soon after a photo is taken we are no longer that person. We grow out of ourselves like a tree adding layers each year. Fundamentally, the photos of ourselves are strangers to us now. As you look at any photo of yourself, the person you once were has retreated both into the maw of time and into the mysterious depths of yourself. These selves are nearly all but forgotten, save these photos.
I show my children pictures and tell them stories of my past. I am selective. I tell them what I think will help them in their life. I tell them my mistakes, my adventures and travels. I tell the things I am proud and not proud to have participated in. Yet, each time I tell them a piece of my story, I am painfully conscious of the fact that I am constructing my own narrative. I know that even if they get the high points of that story, most of that story will be lost with me when I lie down for the last time.
So to with my grandmother. As my version of her life passes before me I can’t help but think I know only the high points of her whole life and but a smidgen of her early life. This portrait tells me that my grandmother was a beautiful young women. This is something she did not, nor would not in humility, tell us. Thus, I know nothing of how her beauty impacted her personality, how it influenced how men and women and relatives treated her, how it influenced her work life, or how it played out in courtship and her eventual choice of a husband. Neither can this portrait speak to me of how she saw the trajectory of her own life or if she ever felt cheated by circumstances or enlivened by her response to it. Looking at this photo, there is much that is hidden.
Holding this photo I begin to think that this young beauty is oblivious, as most of us are at that age, to the coming ravages of time. The Great Depression an event that would indelibly put its harsh stamp on her is but a few years down the road. So too is an alcoholic husband, a miscarriage, a divorce, the death of four siblings, the death of a two husbands, and a long widowhood in a deteriorating neighborhood and home. I know that from the Great Depression on, poverty will be her constant companion. I do not know, nor will I ever know, the story of the precise moment when she would wake up to the realization that the lack of money would be with her forever. She never told me that story.
I don’t want to suggest that her life was wholly preoccupied with the difficulty of money. Surely it was a constant and pressing concern but it never seemed to dampen her spirit. She overcame her meager circumstances with thrift. Her frugality was legendary. She stored and canned fruits and vegetables, clipped coupons, and always knew the stores with the best deals. She seemed to have a pot of soup always simmering on the stove. Her cupboards and pantry were nearly always full. She always had on hand enough food to last several months and would always give visitors food to take home.
Overall she lived a healthy and joyful life. She took pleasure in simple things: baking fresh bread, singing, birds, flowers, gardening. When I was a young boy she took me for weekly walks in various parks. She directed my attention to the beauty of the birds, the flowers, and the whisper of the lapping lake shore. In all the years I knew her, I remember her infectious laughter that often left me with side aches. She was generous with the little she had: lending food, her car, and crocheting an infinite number of hats, mittens and afghans for her children and grandchildren. She was a compassionate women: collecting and providing food and clothing to neighbors. She was an independent thinker. In her mid-thirties, before it was popular, she became a vegetarian and never touched a piece of meat again. She claimed it was the reason she lived so long. This was also the season of her life that she “found the Lord.” At the end of visits she would hug and kiss me, and tell me, “I love you and the Lord loves you too.” One of my most vivid memories of her is kneeling at her bed, hands folded before her bowed head, whispering. She prayed five times a day. I only wish I had a photo of her so kneeling. These are the memories I have of the person I remember; the person I knew best.
Over the years my grandma (whom I called Mum) told me many family stories for which I am grateful. Yet she never told me or anyone else I know the story of this fetching photo. Why she posed in that way? Who took the photo? Was it impromptu or planned? I can only guess how she felt at the moment this photo was taken or how she felt about it 30, 50, 70 years later. This saddens me. Had I seen the photo during her lifetime I would have asked her to tell me its story. I would have devoured the details of that story. Who knows, it might have put in perspective some family history or even explained some current family dynamics. Then again, maybe the telling of it would not shed light on anything but one day in her life when she was happy and young and full of promise. Either way, it would have been a good story to hear.
Do you take every opportunity to listen to stories from your elders?
Present self-knowledge is one thing but can we ever say we know who we were?