Mom died. A rubber-banded shoebox full of her pictures, high on my bookshelf, mocks me, inviting the chore daily. I resist for a year.
Ruing the job, I begin the review; snapshots, Polaroids, glossy black and whites.
Pictures from before my birth, many from Eastern Europe, my parents’ birthplace. Two piles begin to grow, one more quickly than the other.
Pictures of my parents as new parents, my brothers as toddlers, cousins I played with in childhood, images of religious ceremonies that were counterfeit markers for festive events, school portraits from an institution that excelled in education and left no fond social memories.
Many depict strangers. The trash pile grows and feeds regret, sadness, a dash of anger. Mom is passed away and “away” lands hard; no more opportunities for identification, clarification, story-telling, reminiscing. The motivation for the original recording of the moment has been made moot. The memory is nothingness, belonging to an unknown past.
Some have sufficient photographic context to suggest the subject is a relative. Maybe I met them once, maybe half a dozen times. Some may have pinched my chubby cheeks too hard, some may have slipped me a quarter to delight a child. Still, strangers.
Seeing beloved Uncle Simon or kindly Cousin Leah sparks warmth. Underneath is a stronger feeling, one foretold by a year of procrastination.
I see into the future. I see an old man sitting with his adult children looking at photo albums, telling tales, ensuring memories are secured.
It is a cruel fantasy.
The vision includes stealing an hour, two if luck holds. There are stories…
…That’s Cousin Jack who took me to the World’s Fair in 1964…
…This is Cousin Walter who took me to a fancy restaurant in Buffalo in 1981 and tried to talk me out of marrying your mother…
This old man of the future will have deluded himself into thinking that Jack, Walter, and the rest are no longer strangers to his kids, no longer pictures for the trash pile once he passes.
Likely as not, the ones full of nature scenes from vacations before their birth or of my dead college buddies will be discarded with alacrity…
(…We have too much junk already… Why do we need pictures of a mule deer fording rapids in Utah?…Who are these guys with down coats surrounding a keg of beer in a snowfield?)
They may show some family snaps to the old man’s grandchildren who, unless they are mature beyond their years, will be uninterested. Will the images survive a generation beyond that for the telling? Will they remain hard copies? Will they get scanned to the cloud? Maybe/probably/who knows? It doesn’t matter; the backstories will have been lost. There will be nothing to tell, facts muddied by time, emotional value voided.
Images of strangers related by birth, of parents before I was born, of my brothers… all prequels to my own self-important images that I have collected for decades. For what? For record-keeping? The quest for photo documentation? For a future old man’s memories? Will my wife look at them after I’m dead and smile? Or will they move her to tears over how fleeting youth was? Renderings of a life, collected and curated, then moved closer to oblivion in the passing to children and fully into nothingness a generation, perhaps two, after that.
They foretell the brevity of life. In that box, they evolved into others’ “todays,” irrelevant to me. One attaches importance to one’s own pictures. It is hubris. Time wears it all down; other people’s lives from a long time ago.
Pieces of fading photographic paper arranged in a book (when is trash day?)… pixels as bits in the cloud (have to clean up the hard drive… delete).
Smile for the camera. That smile may mock you if you happen across it later. Or, it may be enough for your great granddaughter to make an effort to consider you.