The Archives of a Life
I am the archive’s keeper of my family. I took the task on after my mother died, but I was thinking about the position long before that.
For as long as I can remember, there’s been a brown cardboard box full of photos and memorabilia my mother saved over the course of her life. That brittle old box spent most of its life in an attic or the corner of a closet. Ever since I was a child, I would get Mom to bring it down so we could look at pictures together.
It was how I met my grandparents, my mother’s mother and father. They both died young. Mom was parent-less by the age of twenty. But she would take out those photos and tell me about the lives they lived together so long before I was born. When she described my grandmothers love of flowers and my grandfathers passion for opera, I looked into their serious brown eyes, and felt familiarity. I studied the photo of Grandpa in his store, the one he lost during the depression, when he continued to “sell” to people with no money. I looked closely at the empty shirt sleeve by his side. Mom had told me the story of the accident that occurred when her Uncle Louie tried to beat the train at the crossing and lost. Grandpa got the worst of it. He lived with the pain of a mangled arm for a couple of years before it was ultimately amputated. He would struggle financially for the rest of his life. Those were hard times for Mom’s family. They were hard times for everyone.
There were funny stories too, or at least ones that made Mom laugh when she told them. Like the one about her father’s cousin burning up the kitchen of the apartment he rented in their three-story house during prohibition. He had built a still up there convinced he was gonna get rich selling bootleg liquor. Instead, he destroyed the third story of Grandpa’s house. I started thinking maybe Grandpa was born under a bad sign.
There are photos of Mom’s parents, sisters, cousins, aunts and uncles, a fraction of whom I’ve actually known. There’s a Halloween photo of her Aunt Josie dressed like a Native American and a photo of her parent’s on their wedding day, looking tiny and stiff. There are photos from the early days of my parents marriage and family photos of us kids, our neighbors and cousins, as babies and little children. There is a photo of our tiny Connecticut kitchen jammed with a dozen New’s Year’s Eve revelers dressed to the nines with party hats and drinks, a glimpse of Mom and Dad’s life as a young married couple, before they became our parents.
At some point in my adult life, while I was visiting, I asked Mom if we could get the photos out and label them. It was around the time that I was travelling back and forth to Florida several times a year. Dad was in poor health, and I would go stay with Mom sometimes to shuttle her back and forth to the hospital, or later, to relieve her and my brother Phil of some of the pressure of being long-term care-givers.
The photos were getting old and yellow. Many were enclosed in beautiful old art deco style mats provided by the photo studios. I began going through them at the dining room table, consulting Mom as I went, and writing the person’s name on the back of the decorative mats. I had never met her cousin Carmen who committed suicide while suffering from post-partum depression. She was lovely, like a young Natalie Wood. I labeled her photo. I wrote out the names of her fathers brothers on the back of one photo, three of them in uniforms from the first world war. There were some photos I didn’t bother labeling, like the self-important looking woman Mom told me was an opera singer friend of Grandpa’s. And photo’s of people I knew well–like Aunt Helen and Uncle Lou, who lent us their cottage on Pleasure Beach for a couple of weeks during several of my childhood summers, or Aunt Mary, Mom’s sister, who was our closest relative. I grew up running around her little farm-house property in Devon, CT, in the company of my older cousins, who are more like family to me than anyone else beside my actual brothers and sister. I wrote down the names of Mom’s relatives and their relationship to her on everything else. There were photos of people I knew, like Mom’s Aunt Ida, but I couldn’t reconcile the young girl in the photo with the slight, gray-haired woman I knew as a child, so I wrote it down. So many photos. So many stories. So many lives.
My Dad passed away on my mother’s 75th birthday. By the end of that year, during the worst snow storm Seattle had seen in decades, Mom and I were on a plane headed for the West Coast. Our departure from Tampa was delayed an hour. Then we sat on the tarmac in Chicago O’Hare for three hours waiting for Sea-Tac to give our flight the okay to head over. By the time we got to Seattle, my husband had been waiting for four hours, watching the snow pile up the whole time, wondering what the hell was going on. We drove the 40 miles home in a white out, the windshield wipers slapping uselessly back and forth keeping the glass clear so we could stare into the whitest, blankest vision of an interstate I had ever seen. Somehow my husband managed to get us home safely, but we couldn’t make it up the slope of our driveway and had to abandon the car mid-way, running, with Mom in it, as we ran to the house for a blanket and boots for her. We wrapped Mom up, slid her feet into wool socks and boots, and carried her through the snow by her underarms and into the house. She giggled a little. She hadn’t been in snow for a long, long time. We unwrapped her and sat her down in a chair. And our normally rambunctious Malamute came over and sat quietly beside her to welcome her to her new home.
A week later Mom’s stuff arrived in a U-Haul driven cross-country by my brothers Dana and Joe. The box of photos was there. We put it in our house, and the rest went into a storage unit for a few months while we got Mom’s new modular home situated on our property. Mom became my neighbor, then, living right across the driveway. We spent more time together looking through the photos as I listened to her stories over and over. By then, I could recognize Aunt Josie, Aunt Emmaline, and Uncle Manny without referring to the inscriptions on the back. I knew that her lovely cousin Carmen was Uncle Manny’s daughter. I had looked at those photo’s with Mom dozens of time and never grown tired of it. It was never tedious or boring. They were the picture book of her life and the lives of those she loved and remembered from a time that preceded my own. They were a precious resource. She treasured them and so would I.
Four years after Mom’s cold and snowy arrival to our home, she passed away, in her home across the driveway from mine, surrounded by her kids. That night, we pulled out the photographs and I shared some of the stories I had committed to memory with my siblings. We sorted through them and distributed some of our old school photos and various other pictures between us. There were tears and laughter and all the things that our hearts find expression for when they are at their most tender and vulnerable.
When everyone went home and moved on, I would sit alone at my dining room table, carefully constructing photo albums from the box. I spent hours and hours pressing clear photo corners into the acid free black paper, inserting the photos, and carefully labeling each one. I cried a river tears, but never on the photos. I missed my parents. I missed my grandparents that I never knew. I wished for impossible things. I wished I could have known my grandparents. I wished I could have known my parents as a young married couple before the stresses of raising a large family changed things. I wished I could have seen my Dad as a boy running around Bridgeport Connecticut like one of the Bowery Boys during the depression. My heart longed for these and other impossibilities.
That was fourteen years ago, and, over time, I have come to realize how much I do have. I have an irreplaceable record of the lives of so many people. People that I have known and loved in the flesh and that I have come to know and love from the stories that accompanied their sepia toned images. People that I am connected to through births, and blood lines and marriages and deaths–and through the stories shared between a mother and daughter, over a lifetime together. That brown paper box contained the narratives of things that were enshrined in the vault of my mother’s heart. I am so grateful she shared her heart with me. I am so thankful for the opportunity to be the family archives keeper. The keeper of the archives of our lives.
©2015 Ilona Elliott