My mom is currently going through mountains of photographs from my grandma’s house, which is in the process of being emptied since both she and my grandpa have passed away. It was enlightening to spend an afternoon looking through some of the albums and snapshots of everything from photos of my cousins, my sisters, and me in the questionable fashions of the ’80’s to shots of my parents as really young, hip-looking parents in the somehow much-cooler early 1970’s. But my favorite part of this little visual journey into my grandmother’s life was seeing the really old photographs of my Grandma Bernice as a young woman in the 1930’s.
It wasn’t just the glamorous sensibilities of that era which charmed me, although I loved the way my always-stylish and pretty grandmother looked in the pictures. It was rather her carefree expressions, her vivacious body language, and her youthful countenance that captivated me. It was like I saw my grandma for the first time as a girl–fresh, curious, happy, and on the brink of the rest of her life. Some of the pictures show her working for a summer at the Grand Canyon, where she worked in a shop and also sang with a group of girls in the evenings for visitors to the national park. She was really flirtatiously smiling at one of the cooks at the resort in some of the pictures, and in one shot he is holding her in his arms as she laughs.
Other pictures featured her looking beautiful at the prow of a boat on a peaceful lake, or smiling with friends next to cars so vintage they look like they came straight out of a period film set during Prohibition. I think the one picture that struck me the most was one of my grandma with her parents. In the photo she and her parents Itha and Lawrence sit in a field where they’ve finished a picnic. They are lounging comfortably with each other and smiling contentedly at the camera. Stylistically, it’s not the best photo of the bunch. The scenery is really plain and sparse, and it’s not a great tight shot of their faces. But the way my grandma looks as a girl, peacefully enjoying the company of her parents is grand, as is my great-grandpa Lawrence’s look of total happiness at sharing a day with his beloved wife and daughter. Bernice was the only child Lawrence and Itha had. The picture of the three of them together embodied what a good memory is: simplicity and sweetness. It was taken before my grandma married and faced the demands of raising a large family, and before my great-grandmother Itha died in her sixties of cancer leaving Lawrence a widower for many years. From my perspective looking back at the lives of my grandparents, it was taken at a perfect time.
But pictures can obviously be deceiving. When I look through photos taken during Jack’s toddler years, which was one of the most physically and emotionally grueling periods of my life, I’m always kind of surprised to see myself smiling like everything is right as rain. But just looking at some of those pictures inspires a kind of nauseated, stressful sensation to well up inside me. I can easily recall the major meltdown which preceded the event, or the sinking feeling I had as I watched Jack playing near cousins or friends who developmentally surpassed him by leaps and bounds.
When I see Jack looking tiny and clumsy and chubby and bewildered in those snapshots, I can’t believe how far he and I have both come from the dark and difficult Days When We Were Desperately Trying To Figure Things Out to today, when we still haven’t figured things out, but we are pressing forward at a steady clip and feeling pretty peaceful with who we are and how it’s going. I just want to grab his red curls and kiss his plump and rosy toddler face, which would never look into the camera, and tell him, “Brother, you and I are going to be okay.” Really.