Over this year of disruption and isolation and sorrow, I have heard many people say they intended to dedicate some of the time they were stuck at home to sorting through family photos. While I seem to have frittered away all those months with nothing to show for it, some of you apparently followed through.
A week ago I was delighted to receive an unexpected text from a former classmate and old friend, Anne Moffett Simmons, who I hadn’t heard from in decades. Attached were photos that she and her sister had discovered while going through family albums.
One photo shows my mother, around age six, with her arm around the younger David Caddell, Anne's uncle, as he sneaks a kiss.
In another photo, there's my mother sitting next to her friend Dot (Dorothy) Caddell, Anne’s mother and David's twin sister. David stands to the left, looking a little sheepish, and my mother’s cousin, George McWilliams Jr., is on the right, seemingly disinterested in all the commotion.
I cannot explain the sheer joy that photo elicited. There was my mother, surrounded by her pals and playmates when she was a very young girl, holding what appears to be a bouquet of flowers. She’s smiling at the person taking the picture, whom she seems to completely trust to capture her pleasure in the moment. Dot looks like she can barely tolerate sitting still for these ridiculous shenanigans and is already plotting her next move. The boys stand as unwilling sentinels on either side.
It’s only since I began working on Next Train Out that I have become more fully cognizant of the depth of sadness my mother endured in her lifetime. The loss of her husband in mid-life was just the final blow. There had been the loss of two children and her mother while she was hundreds of miles away from family. The permanent absence of her father who had never bothered to contact her after disappearing shortly after she was born. And, after returning to her hometown to raise her two daughters, the eventual recognition that her old friends had largely moved on with their lives.
While I can recall moments when my mother laughed or acted a little silly, those were few. By the time I was old enough to pay attention, she seemed more commonly somber and somewhat melancholy. It has taken me a lifetime to reflect on why that was.
But in this photo she radiates happiness. Happiness to be seated beside her friend Dot. Happiness that she's the focus of someone's attention. Happiness that someone wants to take her picture. I wish I could ask that little girl what she’s thinking.
As you come across family photos while sorting through the detritus of your rich and complicated lives, I encourage you to consider who else might relish a glimpse into the moments captured by the camera. Because our connections with others have been so restricted over the past year, many of us are aching for a little time with those we love. You might be surprised how healing it can be to have your emotions stirred, even by a black-and-white photo from a time long ago.