The End Of A Life
Prosperity doesn’t give a crap about your old photos
My mother has been estranged from her brother for decades.
This is an ironic fact since my mother has always emphasized the importance of family, and has often been the “glue” that has forever placed importance on family gatherings, and yet she was unable to make this close family tie work.
I’m barely aquainted with my Uncle Don, having met him maybe 3 times in my life, before the estrangement.
There was some sort of falling out between my mom and uncle over the care of their aging mother. The story isn’t totally clear. Years and fading memories have edited what are probably key details, were it to be rehashed now.
But his labels stuck with me. He was an “odd duck.” He “drank a little too much.” “He was always a little bit strange.”
What I remember are the birthday gifts of cool books from the Museum of Modern Art my Uncle Don and Aunt Chris sent me. The glossy photos of the Paul Klee book are etched on my mind.
My uncle left home at 18, when he could, his high school senior year marking the death of his father. Their mother remarried quickly, and life just wasn’t the same, so he moved on to his own life, one he made in New York City.
He lived with his common-law wife for 40 years before they decided to marry. They didn’t need a piece of paper to legally declare their love, but rather for self-preservation. It was more like Tuesday’s errand at the courthouse to ensure they maintained rent control of their city apartment should one pass.
And one did.
Now the curiosity of my mother, and perhaps the need for closure on life’s ending chapters, had me seeking him out. Not having spoken to him in decades, my mother just wanted to know if he was still alive.
And he is.
I found my uncle.
I found him living for almost a year in a nursing home, suffering from advanced dementia.
I learned many details, pieced together by my aunt’s niece in Trinidad, highlighting how little we knew, how quickly life slips through your fingers.
He watched his unrecognizable wife, pass away from Parkinson’s in a bed next to him. His dementia made it unclear to him that the body on death’s door was really the love of his life, and not just some “small man” lying in the bed next to him.
He is now alone, at age 87, with barely a soul to know that he’s still here, alive with no real life left to live, no children born to care now, no grace to be given.
We have called him across the 8 states that separate us, to let him know we are still here, but of course we will never know if he really knows who we are anymore.
The irony that shines on the reconnection between my mother and uncle is that at least now he doesn’t remember why he’s mad at my mom in the first place. And the details that broke their relationship matter no more.
And I sit and wonder at it all. How cruel life can be at the end. We’ll all be there some day, some endings crueler than others.
How sad to die alone.
Photographs And Memories
My mom has photo albums galore, snapshots from the early 1900s to present, and sepia portraits from the 1800s, some almost 150 years old, marking family history of those we were never to meet or know. She was the future generation of her time that cared to have the photos of long lost relatives.
Mom brought her camera to everything our whole lives. The thousands of photos marking the usual birthdays and holidays, but also snapshots of ice skating on the frozen lake, getting my driver’s license, shrimp night at the beach, the water fight in the backyard, Girl Scout camping trips, graduations, weddings, vacations, and more.
There’s always more.
More life to live, until there’s not. More pictures to take, until there’s not.
Sure it’s fun to stroll down memory lane with each turned page, but the reality of these stored photos makes me pause, and look at the photos a different way.
If you get to the end of your life, like Uncle Don, and have no photos to bear witness, then how will those after you know the moments of the life you lived?
They won’t. Your memories are just that. Photos or not. Your life is tucked away inside you with maybe a few witnesses or two to remember with you.
All these photos sit in cheap, unphotographic-friendly albums in my basement, stored for posterity.
But what future generation will care?
I stare at them and wonder what will I do with all of these when my mom is gone? When I’m gone? My kids aren’t going to care about my parent’s tennis party in 1979. And they aren’t going to care about my 2nd cousin’s wedding, my estranged uncle’s visit to Vermont, or lunch with our nice neighbor, Mrs. White.
We’re all so compelled to record our moments in time. And of course now it’s even easier and almost a requirement with digital technology. Gone are the days you had to decide what pictures were worth taking, guarding your 24-image instamatic film roll for only the keeper-shots.
We snap this pic and that, marking our spot on earth, casting our images to the world, as if to say, I’m here.
Stirring the memory pot
Almost a sacrilege, I’ve decided to remove photos from the albums to give to my uncle.
I cursed my mother with every little obsessive piece of tape I removed that she used to ensure the photos wouldn’t leave their rightful place in these albums.
She put each photo in each album like she was planting it there for all eternity, for many generations to come.
Knowing I was committing at the very least a misdemeanor by disturbing these treasures of posterity, I carefully removed photos of my uncle’s life.
From his toddler days on his father’s shoulders, to family trips to Jones Beach, to his grandfather cooking in the kitchen. There’s also his 12th birthday party, and sitting on the swingset with his sister, never knowing he’d be estranged from her 50 years later.
And I’ve cobbled together the dozen or so photos I have of his wife, the love of his life.
Thinking if I can piece together some of his life it will equal a whole.
Or at least whole enough to maybe provide comfort or a glimpse of a memory. Something to stir the closing, darkened part of his memory.
Something to remove the aloneness.
I imagine him holding each photo in his hand, reading the backsides scrawled with people’s names and dates, and having a glimmer of knowing.
Of knowing that was him, his dad, his mom, his sister, his bits of life, his wife, his love.
And he lived a real life before the one he’s living now. Cause it’s not much living at all.
Truthfully, I’m not sure how much posterity cares. Maybe it appreciates a brief glimpse of those gone before them, but the reality is these albums galore will more than likely end up in the trash.
The few and far between care about those who have gone before them. They will revel in the uniqueness of the old photos, and the retro-ness will appeal, but my grandkids won’t care about Uncle Don or my piano recital or my parent’s trip to Hawaii.
Maybe the photos of each of us are really just for us, and us alone. Nevermind anyone else. Helping us remember the details that will get lost with each passing year, the pictures help us to know that we lived a life.
Perhaps a good life.
Posterity can wait.