The photograph’s quality is fading fast. Blacks and whites are turning yellow. Some of the film paper is dry and brittle. Other parts put back together with tape. Many of the people forgotten.
“You know I’m not quite sure,” my mother says, pointing to a face as we sit at her kitchen table.
My grandmother would know. Jimmy, a very close second cousin, would know as well. But they are gone and a whole world with them. The people in the photo are now ghosts in still life; people only spoken about at funerals, if remembered at all.
Time and tide wait for no man type of stuff.
Staring at the images I am struck by this thought: how many generations do any of us have before we are completely forgotten? I don’t think it is as long as some of us would hope. The realization at the moment feels profound.
The reason my mother and I are looking at the photos is because Jimmy just passed days ago.
Jimmy was my mother’s cousin. He was 30 years her senior and 50 years mine. Never married. No children. He hid the picture, along with many others, away in a Christmas popcorn tin in his apartment.
Jimmy has one brother alive and a few nephews and nieces.We’re now the vessels of his memory during his time on earth. These pictures are the last few physical items to chronicle his existence for 87 years. The tin is now ours to care for.
As we sit, my mother asks me to deliver Jimmy’s eulogy at his funeral service. Speaking about Jimmy will be more difficult and emotional than I think when I say yes.
How do you honor in words the life of someone who only knew you for half of theirs?
In the photos are Jimmy’s aunts, uncles, friends, dogs, brothers, a father and mother, and old girlfriends.
My mother can name those who directly touched her life. Some of the aunts and uncles, a dog or two. The women and friends and a few blood relatives who died before my mother’s memories began though? Gone. Unidentifiable. Mysteries to never be solved. Stories to never be told. True deaths, at least on this earth and in our family. Lives I yearn to know. An odd nostalgia for what came before me that’s always been there and I could never fully explain swells.
There will be a headstone and plot of land where Jimmy’s remains will rest. Without the people though . . . without the people to truly remember us after a generation or two, what is there beyond mystery?
As I begin to scan some of those images, to digitize and upload and save for the sake of posterity, I wrestle with trying to put all these anonymous faces into context. Yet they are not completely unknown. Their collective decisions in some way shaped my life.
Perhaps my life, and the life of my family, is the context now. I’m not even sure if that makes sense, or if I could ever clearly articulate what I mean.
The best I can hope for here is to remember I am a small part in a collective history that keeps moving forward. Hopefully, what I will leave behind in saving these images is a bit of light cast on the past that in turn gets carried forward for as long as possible.
It’s the least I can do for the large, rich, and wonderful history full of people behind me, who were gracious enough to bring my family here and then be forgotten by name.