I confess, I was seated at my mother’s dining room table not far from a big tin of Christmas cookies. There were tell-tale shortbread crumbs near me on the purple tablecloth, and a bottomless cup of coffee. From the living room TV came the muffled thunder of volume-turned-low Ghosts of Christmas Past, then Present, then Future, each one Hollywood made wilder that the last, but I ignored them. Much more interesting spirits were spread around us on the table. Not the cookies. We were sorting through a big box of family photos.
Of course it’s good to keep in touch with our origins. Putting many dozens of photographs into stacks by decade will do the job nicely, and I’m glad my thoughtful sister put us onto the task. Intriguing people glanced up at me from the pictures. I slowed down often to commune with these spirits of my kin. Much more pleasant spirits they were than the hyped-up ghosts on the TV. More mysterious, more a part of me.
Nearly all the black and white snapshots were from the 1930s and 40s, when my many aunts and uncles grew up in the little house where most of them had been born. These were kids I might not have recognized had not my grandmother written their names on the back of each picture in her graceful cursive script. Kids outside playing rough and ready, then teens looking sharp in the tidy sweater-and-skirt, shoe-and-sock fashions of the day, then growing into the adult faces I knew when I was a child. All along the way, I spotted a thread of continuity I hadn’t expected: my grandmother’s smile.
In picture after picture I noticed how comfortably she smiled. Seeing her ease, I found myself remembering the timbre of her voice but not something in particular that she had said. I realized that I hadn’t known her well enough. I was too young. I’d like to drive now to 148 Chicago Avenue and sit at her kitchen table and see what else I could learn about her big spirit. And learn from. Raising all those kids with my grandfather and getting them sent off solidly in life, she is comfortable in herself in picture after picture, year after year, in everyday clothes or fancy wear for weddings, in dark hair or gray. But grandmother’s long gone. A person can’t drive by the old house any more to glance at the windows of the bedroom where all that birthing had gone on or the kitchen where the coffee was poured. A big retail chain bought up the whole city block, tore down the houses, and opened a gigantic store. Joni Mitchell was right—they put up a parking lot.
I know from our phone calls that my mother still reflects on her own mother’s ways. She still remembers and respects particular lessons my grandmother taught her about family life. I remember what I can about her from my own childhood, but it’s not as much as I would prefer. I like her handwriting on the back of so many black and white snapshots. When she herself appeared in a photo, in the list of names on the back, instead of her own name she would simply write “me.”
Someday children of my children may peruse these black and white snapshots. If they can even read the cursive on the back, there where my grandmother wrote the word “me” in her own clear hand, will they know who she was? They may not recognize their ancestor, but I suspect that my grandmother’s great-great-grandchildren will grow into their own reflective old age knowing how to smile. They’ll probably like shortbread too.
Music: "Lindy Hop" by Lil Armstrong