When my grandmother became very old and somewhat senile, she was living in the home of her son. One day, my uncle walked into the room she used as a sitting room to find her with old family photographs and a small scissors in her hand. “What are you doing, Ma?” he asked, puzzled. “I’m getting these people out of this picture. They don’t belong in it. I don’t know who they are!” The people she was deleting, of course, were one time family or friends whom she no longer recognized.
The story has become a staple of mine about the sad and funny things that happen when people get old. But lately I’ve been thinking that Grandma’s proto-Photo Shopping might be a metaphor for my life. People have been cut out of it for large chunks of time. It seems now that they are increasingly being cut out of it for good.
This losing of people began fairly early for me. When I was seven, my paternal grandfather died. I had not really known him; he had had several strokes when I was young, which left him weak and . . . and I don’t know what else, because I don’t remember and there’s no one left to ask. At any rate, his death prompted my grandmother to sell her home, which was four doors down the street from us, and move into an apartment. It was nearby, but within a year she moved to another city an hour or so away. From a frequent visit, she fell into the category of regular but well-spaced visit.
When I was seven or eight, my maternal grandparents moved from their house down the street to retire to Florida’s Suncoast. (Yeah, we were a cozy little neighborhood family there for a while.) We did not lose contact with them completely. They returned to Detroit every two years for a couple of months in late spring, there were three family vacations to stay with them over the next ten years, and eventually my mother moved to the same area to be near them, though I was in college at the time and spent only vacations there.
But these sporadic visits—however lengthy—could not compare to knowing they were just down the street or the extended family dinner every Sunday. My grandparents became, mainly, a set of memories. Wonderful ones, mind you, of my grandfather bouncing us on his leg as he chanted “Horsey, horsey, jumping high!” or tickling-scratching us with his prickly unshaven face on a day he didn’t feel like shaving or of my grandmother hitting flies to my brother and me, swinging the bat while dressed in heels and a house dress, wearing a strand of pearls. (Absolutely true, I swear it!)
But they were memories, an archaeologist might say, of earlier occupations. There were no fresh deposits being laid down in that particular corner of the brain-site. There were mostly photographs, evidence of past contact (until somebody came along to cut somebody out). There were no movies being made of life as currently lived.
Within a year or two of my grandparents’ move, my parents divorced. For the next year or so, my father visited, though only rarely. After a while, however, he did not come by at all. Another loss; another relationship frozen in the past. Not until a year after I graduated from college, when Mrs. P and I married and invited him to the wedding, did I see him again. Must have been nearly a ten-year gap. We visited each other from time to time after that, though the visits—we lived several states apart—were infrequent and not of great duration. Also, since we were both clammed-up Swedes, both of us were preternaturally disposed to not say much about what went on in that chasm of years that separated early life together and these reunited years. (Or I was too stupid to push.)
Ironically, that renewed contact came in the midst of a trio of losses that cut deeply. Less than two months after Mrs. P and I married, my mother died. Gone for good. No chance to enjoy her company as an adult; no chance for her and Mrs. P to build on the strong bond and love they immediately felt for each other; no chance for her to spoil grandkids. No chance to ask her to name the people in the photos, to explain the past. No chance for us to make movies together —one of the sharpest pricks that comes from these final separations.
Number two was the disappearance of my brother, who dropped away the following winter. Without a trace. We had walked different paths, he into the Marines, me into college. But we were still brothers. We still carried memories of years of a shared room, shared activities, shared experiences. Once again, a relationship was placed in stasis rather than being added to: cryogenics rather than real life.
The third blow was the death of my grandfather two years after my mother died. Another part of my life was being cut off. (A great-aunt had also died in Florida—collapsing, dead, in my grandparents’ home two years before my mother had died. Three deaths in the same area in so few years convinced me to never want to see the Suncoast again.)
There were other losses, too. I went to Massachusetts for college and had no desire to return to Detroit after graduation—even if my mother had not moved away. Communication with high school friends moved from gush to trickle to nothing, and another channel of memory became a dry bed rather than a living stream. (Though, a few years ago, I found that it might actually be a wadi.)
I grant that there have been gains, too: Mrs. P’s familia quickly became mine; her parents became my second parents, and her brothers and sisters-in-law and nieces and nephews have been absorbed into my heart. The comradeship of college passed after those four intense years, though travels and reunions have allowed Mrs. P and I to reconnect regularly with those friends. Our two boys joined us, and we had great fun watching them grow up and sharing life with them. (Though with kids, you know that eventually they’ll leave.) Then there was the rediscovery of my brother and the re-forging of our sibling bond.
But his recent death is another in a string of passings over the last dozen or so years that seem to transform my grandmother’s photo-snipping into an ongoing, depressing episode of “This Was Your Life.” She was the first, then my father. After a gap of several years, Mrs. P’s parents died, followed soon after by an uncle of mine and now by my brother. Some of these people were very old and suffered diminished lives and their passing was a blessing to them. Some exited with grace or with great peace or amazing beauty.
But the wonderfulness of those final exits makes them no less final. I understand that death is a part of the human condition, a part of the cycle of life that we must all accept. But, as I told Mrs. P about a week ago, I’d wouldn’t mind a moratorium on death for a while.
I’d like to create a few more movies rather than always being left fumbling over the same tired, cut-up photos.
Words © 2009 AtHome Pilgrim.
All Rights Reserved.