Pictures as memories
Our paper has received a lot of obituaries, the past few weeks. I think it’s the cold. Usually, we print a page of them, 10 or 12 lives memorialized by a list of names. Mother of, daughter of, sister. Sometimes their accomplishments come through, too. Ladies auxiliary. Gardening. And once, “she fed her hummers daily.” And lately, I’ve been thinking about this influx of obituaries as a hallmark of loss, but also of life. Of how much we’re all connected to someone, to everyone, to each other.
Last week, my godmother, mother and I took my grandmother to Disney World in Orlando, Fla. She hadn’t been in almost 30 years, since my grandfather died. Since before I was born. The wonder in her eyes at what had changed, what had not, was more acute than that of a child’s, because hers had experience behind it. A child’s astonishment is blind. They know so little, so everything is amazing. My grandma’s excitement was rich with wisdom behind it, and was that much more wonderful to experience along with her.
As one of my coworkers said, “You had the trifecta of vacation perfection: Warm weather, Disney and grandma.”
I think about that, as I go through the photographs we took, like snapping pictures might capture memories more reliably than our eyes. They do, don’t they?
Or do they?
Often, obituaries come in with photos. Last week, a man’s last depiction was him as a young man, shirtless and leaning up against a tent like they pitched in The War. He had a bucket in the other hand, had struck a cocky pose. His chest was muscled, bare. I looked away from his nipples, embarrassed for this man, this man who had been a boy, who had been shirtless somewhere, had struck that pose and never imagined it would be his last. His obituary said, “kept his military posture all his life.” So it made sense, I guess, in a way. In the way that anything makes sense, when writing an obituary, which is to say, not much.
What would that man think, if he saw the photo we published? The quality wasn’t good, as it often isn’t with old pictures printed and scanned and printed again. Newsprint isn’t known for its clarity. But memories aren’t, either.
Right now, I look at a picture of my grandma laughing with the Pluto character, and remember how we teased her about being “afraid” of him. Once, years before I was born, Pluto grabbed her at a character breakfast, teasingly. It became a joke that he “tried to strangle her,” and that became a running gag for our trip, for our family. But if that picture became her last, what memory would survive it?
What memories survive us?
“I’m putting my obituary picture in my will,” I tell my staff reporter, half joking. But half. We all live such complicated lives, I think. In this age of smartphones, of social media, of cameras following us everywhere we go, it seems, we can’t control the images we make. The figures we cut, on a daily basis. I look through my Facebook photos and smile at poses I remember, friends, moments, memories made. But I look at them too with a critical eye, a stranger’s gossamer lens and I wonder: Who am I, to you?
The past few weeks, we have printed two, even three pages of obituaries. Twice as many as usual. It’s the winter, some say. Feet of snow is hard on the elderly, icy roads on the young. Live is difficult in the colder months, for us today as for the pioneers, or so the heft of our death notice page would signify. And I think about how each notice is a person, a life. Those that come in at four lines long and those that weigh in at 20, these people are no more or less than each other. Each life was as rich, as full of color, of names to list in Times 10 pt font, but we don’t have control of that at the end. We hope for a friend, a family member to care enough to spell things right, to remember we loved to feed the birds, to watch NASCAR, to write. To love.
I’m thankful for the chance to have made those memories with my grandma, the other women of my family. As I laugh at the photos we made, I squirrel away the memories they point to, hoarding them like diamonds I’ll take out and polish, now and then. Memories must be cultivated like seedlings, I’ve found. Those that aren’t watered, aren’t examined for bugs, will wither as surely as neglected sprouts.
But equally, I’ve taken to staring into the faces of the obituaries we print with an eye toward more than its pixel aspect ratio. Someone has to honor these people as lives passed, recognize more than their properly spelled names and correct dates. We’ll all be there, someday. And that day, I’ll want someone to take an extra moment to think of me as a person, too. I think we’re all worth that much.