Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Strange Old Pictures of My Family

Last month, my grandfather passed away. On the day he died, we (my father's five siblings, their spouses, and every one of their twenty mostly-adult children) gathered at my grandfather's home. It wasn't long before one of my cousins had located my grandmother's photo albums, at least two dozen in all. We sat for hours in the living room, passing the photo albums around, laughing at how we all looked. (So many Cosby sweaters. So many mustaches. So many mullets.) Often I would get to the end of an album, and immediately start over from the beginning, sometimes taking more time to look through the album than I did the first time. I could hardly put them down. We stayed for a week, and not a day went by where I did not spend at least one hour looking through the albums.

Photo albums are a dying medium, which is too bad, because there's something intensely personal about them, far more personal than flipping through digital images on a camera or a computer screen. For one thing, most photo albums come from a time before you 1) could take as many pictures as you wanted, 2) could actually see the picture you got right after you took it (which is why so many pictures in photo albums are so weird - see example above - it's a tragedy that we're so quick to delete these kinds of shots from our digital cameras). Plus you had to incur the extra time and cost of getting the pictures developed. And all that came before you even get to the part where you put the pictures in the albums. Photo albums are too inconvenient these days. There are far too many overhead costs and barriers to production.

The albums are the product of my grandmother, who died of Alzheimer's four years ago. I find it difficult to conjure an image of my grandmother in which she did not have a camera in her hands. She snapped pictures as if she had a digital camera, as if she weren't bound by the limitation of only having 24 shots per roll of film. After developing her pictures, she scrupulously cataloged them, inking the names of the people, the location, and the year on the back of each photo in her gentle handwriting. Then she put them into photo albums, one for almost every year ranging from the early 70s through the mid 90s. Add to that number a handful from the 50s and 60s, when her own children were young. The entire library makes for a pretty comprehensive catalog of our lives.

Looking at them spread out on the living room floor, it occurred to me what an impressive task this had been - and a quiet one. My grandfather had an outgoing, engaging personality. He never met a person with whom he couldn't converse, (whether the other party was willing or otherwise). My grandmother had assumed the role of the silent partner in their relationship. These albums were a gentler reminder that she, too, had been here. In a way it felt as though we lost them both that day.

Bear with me for a moment, I'm coming back around to a point: Several weeks after my grandfather died, I read a book called Reality Hunger by a writer named David Shields. Reality Hunger is essentially Shield's philosophy of nonfiction writing, in which he argues that all art, including novels, film, music, architecture, footwear, collage, whatever, is a mode of nonfiction writing (I'm really dumbing it down here but that's the jist). The following passage brought my grandmother's photo albums to mind:

Carpenters restore old homes to their architectural and design period, not knowing the original color of the walls. If restoring a home is like writing a nonfiction narrative, and if choosing the paint for one wall is like imagining one moment in the larger story, shouldn't we acknowledge that the house and its walls were in fact never one particular way? On a single wall, sometimes paintings hung, sometimes wallpaper stared, sometimes children penned their names, sometimes flies sat, sometimes dust settled, sometimes sunlight blazed, sometimes fingerprints shimmered. The lost story the carpenter tries to restore isn't one particular story, but a pool of possible tales, with different perspectives from different characters, told at different times for different reasons. The nonfiction writer who works to revive a lost scene adds one similar story to the collection of stories that ever existed for that moment... I don't seek to tell the best story. I seek to tell a story that once was. I seek to fill a place that once had meaning with meaning again.

The first reason this passage brought the photo albums to my mind is that it essentially explains why my grandmother went to such great lengths to compile these albums, beyond the enjoyment she got from taking pictures. My grandfather's home felt empty and silent without him. The albums gave the living something to reflect on and build meaning (or a narrative) out of. I remember thinking even then, as we sat around my grandfather's living room, passing the albums back and forth, that it was almost as if she had planned for that very moment.

The other reason this passage brought the photo albums to mind is that there was a certain amount of personal guilt that accompanied my grandfather's death. For some time I had kicked around the idea of recording him at length. He had lived through the Great Depression, was a veteran of World War 2, and most importantly, possessed an untapped library of embarrassing tales about my father and his siblings. But first there was college, and then my first real job, and sometimes girlfriends and parties a host of other absolutely trivial bullshit which now leaves me utterly flummoxed as to how I ever believed was immediately more important than driving four measly hours and visiting my last living grandparent. I was not even swayed after my older brother visited him earlier this year and reported to me the words he told him: "I feel like I'm at the end of my show." I put it off to the next month, and the next. Then one day I received a phone call from my parents, saying my grandfather had been taken to the hospital. Two days later my parents arrived in Chicago and we drove together to northern Wisconsin, where he lived. We visited him in the hospital as soon as we arrived, in the middle of the night. He was on a ventilator by then, sedated and unresponsive. He died the following afternoon.

And with him died the stories. And almost as soon as those stories were lost forever, I understood that it wasn't the stories I wanted. How can I explain this? My grandfather was a larger-than-life character. Although I suppose most people feel that way about their grandfathers, when I tell people about him, I feel compelled to add, "But really! He was!" From there I feel impotent to find words that accurately convey the force of his character. I didn't want the stories so I could write about them, or him. I wanted them for the same reasons we keep photo albums - to construct the feeling of being with these people, again, in that precise moment in time. To have failed to create some record like this is what really haunts me, both as a grandson and (less importantly) as a writer.

Fortunately, as I alluded to earlier, I have a copious number of cousins, and I wasn't the only one who had this idea. The day after my grandfather died, my cousin Kate showed us videos she had taken of him during a recent Christmas visit. (I think I speak for my entire family when I say holycrapthankgodforkate.) The videos are short, hardly 15 minutes in total. But viewing them reminds me of looking at a crescent sliver of the moon; though so little is visible to the eye, I can feel, imagine, sense the whole. I could sit here all day and watch these videos and watch them again tomorrow, as if turning the pages of a photo album in my lap, reaching the end, and starting over from the beginning.

The rest of the videos of my grandfather at the following link:

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