Photo Album Memories

Today we went through the pre-funeral ritual of looking through old photo albums and scrapbooks, looking for pictures to use. I think this exercise may be of greater value than the resulting slideshow. The slideshow is great, projected up on the screen, but it is silent or set to music.

The gathering process is much more educational and gratifying. It always comes with stories and remembrances. There’s always time spent staring at a black and white picture, trying to remember if that’s Uncle Claude or his brother or maybe someone else. Lots of cute little babies that no one remembers who they are. And the embarrassing childhood photos to show the children and grandchildren.

Today I learned that my paternal grandfather’s father was British and actually served in the R.A.F. during WWI. I never knew that. My dad remembers him, remembers his accent. This fascinates me.

When my maternal grandfather died, my mother’s cousins brought old photo albums originally belonging to their father, my grandfather’s brother. I looked through those pictures, mostly from the mid to late 1940’s, drinking in the snapshots of a time long gone. After awhile, I noticed that Grandpa was often in the company of a woman who was not my Grandma. And a little girl who was not my mother, the firstborn child.

I finally asked someone who the woman and child was. The answer left me stunned. That was his first wife and their daughter. All those years and I never knew that he had been married before Grandma. Or that his first wife had left him while he served in Europe in WWII. Or that he felt a child should be raised by an intact family so willingly gave up his parental rights and let his ex-wife’s new husband adopt and raise her as his own.

That had been a powerful afternoon for me and I had considered it unique. It is still special but I no longer consider it unique. I suspect that most families go through this when there is an elderly death. I enjoyed going through the albums with my father today and the other conversations throughout the day. But it made me wonder about a couple of things.

First, I wondered what families will do in eighty years or so, when all of our pictures are digital. There won’t be photo albums to look through. In some ways, it will be easier – no need to scan in the pictures. But instead of a couple hundred photos to paw through, we’ll have hundreds of thousands of digital images… that won’t be labeled as to who is in them.

On a deeper level, I wonder why we don’t have these conversations until someone dies. Are we really so busy with our lives that there is no time to look back? Is what is happening in Modern Family or Family Guy of more value to us than what happened in our family history? Or are we just not around the people who have the memories? Or are the memories forgotten until the photographs bring them back? Or do we just subconsciously believe we have more time?

Then again, I wonder if it’s really so bad to not share these memories until the funeral comes. Maybe the remembering of fonder times lessens the burden of dealing with the loss; the discovery of “new” tales brings our ancestors back to life. Maybe it helps the youngest members of the family gain a connection, not just to the person in the coffin, but to all the people that came before them too. Maybe it reminds us that this frail, failing being who just passed on was once young and vibrant, was once like us.


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