The Messiah in a vial is coming. Not only does it promise to restore your lives to their past grandeur, but it contains an additional positive unintended consequence: lifting from your shoulders the daily burden of guilt over all the projects planned for these months of lockdown that were never completed – never even begun. The closets to be re-organized. The basement or storage locker to be emptied. The classics to be read. The languages to be learned. The family tree to be constructed. Once the lid is off and you’ve returned to your previous frantic existence, there will be ample excuses for tasks undone. At the moment there are no easy alibis at hand, hence the cloud of guilt that may elude your smoke detector, but not your psyche.
In addition to reading a few impossibly long books, the only project on our agenda that actually achieved liftoff is one that seems to have appeared on many people’s lists: the sorting and labeling of old photographs. We undertook this task out of a sense of responsibility for future generations who might have an interest in piecing together their family histories. Let’s be clear that choosing this project means letting go of others, leaving our offspring with a whole lot of burdensome lifts – all the decluttering and heaving that especially awaits people whose lives have been constructed of books and paper. Unless you’re Ernest Hemingway or Virginia Woolf, there’ll be no university library arriving to vacuum up your papers, pack up your mementoes and haul them away to their archives, after paying you a handsome sum in the process. If you’ve been lucky enough to plant and maintain an attractive metaphoric lawn, now it’s time for the grunge work of raking all those dead leaves that have fallen on it. We’ve been woefully remiss in avoiding all that work since March. Apologies to our daughters who will be left to deal with the aftermath unless we get our act together soon.
Back to the photos. When one of our daughters was visiting several years ago, we made a point of showing her an easily overlooked cabinet that contains four large cartons of photographs. Both my wife and I have family stories about stashes of photos left behind in the course of a move, choking off already frail links to generations of our ancestors. We didn’t want that mistake to trail us into the next generation. These boxes contain the most embarrassing hodge-podge of photos from different time periods, different residences, different trips, alongside the negatives – remember those? – from which they were developed. Who are the people who return from the travels and place photographs of the experience in online folders, into neat albums where they are affixed to pages using photo corners or sit under plastic? On the contrary, our photos have spilled out of their original drug store envelopes, so in the same handful scooped from the box there’s a picture of a rocky beach on the Irish coast, a family portrait posed at a niece’s bat mitzvah and a heartbreakingly evocative photo of our daughters when they were still young enough to share the same room.
The task seems insurmountable, even though it consists of nothing more than listing on the back the identity of people who might not be familiar to future viewers and clustering the photos with their logical partners. Since March we have made it through two boxes, plus more than half of a third, but progress is so painfully slow, mainly because one or the other of us moans when it’s suggested that we set aside some “photo time” when we’d rather be reading. Yet each time we virtually strap ourselves into the chairs within easy reach of the unfinished boxes, the rewards abound. We become the drowning man seeing his life pass before his eyes, but with that instant expanded into months and years.
Who are these good-looking young people, the guy with the fashionable sideburns, the slender young woman with long hair and celebrity sunglasses? We never thought of ourselves as particularly attractive at the time. Are we just reacting to the contrast between these vivid figures and our declining selves? And did we really visit all those places that we can’t even identify accurately now from the photos– England, Greece, Turkey, Mexico, Argentina, South Africa – logging experiences that have left us only the dimmest of memories? And those children sprouting up as if from the earth itself, suddenly waiting for the school bus clutching their lunch boxes, soon to be hanging out with their teen-age buddies and even later with their life partners.
Occasionally, there’s a special gift like the prize in a Cracker Jacks box. Here’s a picture of my wife’s grandmother, circa 1935, one we’ve never seen before. We have no idea how it made its way into this box of pictures from a much later period. The other day there was an envelope with a letter, unsigned, but containing enough clues to suggest that it was written by my mother as part of an assignment in her citizenship class. The fact that it’s astonishingly well-written makes it all the more poignant that I never once saw her put pen to paper in all my growing up years.
We’ve still got a way to go before this project is done, but already the whole enterprise has given birth to a series of What if? questions. What emotions would these pictures evoke if our marriage hadn’t lasted? If some unspeakable tragedy had ripped one of us from the happy world represented in these photos? What did we do to deserve the good fortune of having arrived here intact so far, our children safe and, by all appearances, happy?
Isn’t that the destination every parent dreams of? Remember the classic quote from great Texas journalist Molly Ivins who said about George Bush that he thought he had hit a home run, but didn’t realize he was born on third base? Before we give ourselves too much credit for our successful navigation, let’s remember all those parents who wished for the same for themselves and their children, but were assigned a very leaky boat for the journey. Privilege put the wind in our sails, and we can’t be allowed to forget that.
PS. This is another “Big Date” days. On December 7th, 1941 the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. I was only 2 at the time, so it doesn’t register as a personal memory, but it was the defining event for several generations of Americans. The date never passes without some acknowledgement from me. Once there were just wars.