I have an old photograph of me at the top of the Empire State Building, my dress blowing in the wind that always exists up there. I remember that day well, even though I was only six. My husband says he has never been to the top, even though he grew up in Connecticut. I smile, because I have this picture and the memory that proves I was there. Who would know where the picture was taken if I weren’t here to tell them? There is nothing written on the back. At least there is a date on the front from the developing that says 1955. If my children were to see this picture, they would never know where I was standing when I had my Marilyn Monroe moment with my dress billowing about me. It’s not important, I suppose, to anyone but me. But I want it to matter because it is a moment in my life that keeps slipping away, little by little.
That’s the thing about pictures. Old ones are wonderful to look at but frustrating when you don’t know the circumstances. I even have old ones I took after my last parent died that show people I don’t even know. Who are they? Are they friends? Family? Where were these people when they were captured on film? I don’t throw them out because somehow they were important to my grandparents or my parents, and I can’t part with them if only for that.
The other day I was going through some old photos and found one of cacti. Yes, cacti. On the back was written a detailed description of the photo, including the month, day, and year. I looked on the back of many other photos with people in them, and nothing was written. Why is it that the cacti were more important than the people? Or was it that when the other pictures were taken, the people never thought ahead to a time when a granddaughter or a great granddaughter might be looking at those pictures and want as much information as she could get? Maybe they were enjoying the moment and not looking to a distant future. But now I am left with so many questions and no one to give me answers.
Here is a picture of my grandmother, my mother’s mother. When was it taken? How old was she? Was she married to Daddy Bill yet? Had she given much thought to what shape her life might take? And what about the picture of my grandfather trying to pull my grandmother into the ocean? At least there is the imprint of the date on the front of the picture, so I know my grandfather was only a year younger than I am now. I can surmise they were in Florida at the time, since I know they used to leave their cold Ohio home in the winter to spend time in Clearwater. I love the playful look on my grandfather’s face, and I love seeing how vibrantly alive and healthy he looked because his health deteriorated not so many years after that. And Grandma? I can’t see her face, but was she smiling at Daddy Bill’s antics? Did she give any thought to that time so many years ago when the earlier picture was taken and think, Yes, this has been a good life. This is what I had hoped for.
A picture of my father’s father and my mother sitting on a bench in Central Park shows my mother laughing. What had my grandfather said to her? What year was it? It had to be before 1956 because my grandfather died that year at the age of 59. I want to know everything about him because I adored him in the seven short years I knew him. The pictures of him make me hunger for stories about his life, stories that will never be told anymore.
I wonder if years from now my children will be looking at old pictures and wonder what the circumstances were or who the people were. Will they sit, like me, full of questions and wish they had asked more? I could put descriptions on the back of some of them, though there are so many memories that are lost now. And nowadays, we take pictures digitally and save them on computers or CD’s or DVD’s, nothing to hold in our hands and flip over so we can read an inscription. Technology doesn’t always make things better. Anyway, like I said, it probably isn’t important to anyone but me.
But, just in case it does matter, here is a picture of my husband and me at my youngest son’s wedding last August. We are sharing a quiet moment, pulled away from the celebrating guests, to reflect on this wonderful event, how fortunate we are to have the family we have, and how blessed we are to be welcoming this precious daughter-in-law into it. Now, if my children or grandchildren see this picture one day, they won’t have to wonder, What were they thinking?