When I was old, but younger than now, mom was thinning out — becoming a handful of bumps in her hospital bed. Aunt Julia was making noises about clearing/cleaning upstairs — mom’s half of the house they shared in Oyster Bay.
(We all have different ways of grieving. They were very close.)
I went, self-appointed, owning up to the only-daughter role after half a century of dodging.
I went, the least qualified.
(Does anyone ever get qualified to sort out the stuff of a lived life for the not-quite-dead yet? To do what I could. Could? Should? These were always getting mixed up in my mind.)
So I went upstairs. I didn’t cry. I was alert, like a squirrel, and twitching with stoppered feelings I didn’t dare unplug. An emotional amputee, I had cut off the arms that trapped me. I had no hands for this task.
I’m sure I moved things around. My mother was alive here in her things — much more here than in that hospital bed. There was a time in her decline when she didn’t recognize us, her children. That was sad. Now? I couldn’t tell you if she even knew she was alive. But she persisted with her stubborn Irish will.
One of the few boxes I did open was full of photos. Old photos back from the time when photos were precious artifacts of once-in-a-lifetime events.
Some faces I recognized. The official ones, the ones in their own mats, those I took home to keep with my stuff. Even ones of people whose faces I didn’t know. I know enough to know: This is family.
Now I am older, and the story re-ignites in a plain brown envelope from Scotland.
Photos from my father’s family, pictures from the one time Dad was able to go back and visit. (Not for him the sallying back and forth that stitches frayed families together these days.)
Faces, shining, beam at me from long ago.
OK, too much, back you go into that brown envelop. For safe-keeping. (mine? theirs?)
Days later, as I was tidying up the many boxes that line my office, I came across those photos I took home from Oyster Bay, I was not looking for them, but they found me nonetheless, hopscotching through their time and mine.
When all these photos were taken, at weddings and anniversaries, this was my family. Even when I wasn’t here yet, as they are not here now.
All those photos were old when I was young. Two strands of time twisting, the DNA of then and now leapfrogging on legs riddled by the sphinx.
I hold both the photos and my genes in trust from the unknown past to the unknowable future: when my face joins theirs in someone else’s stuff.
Or slips away, forgotten, when memory is exhausted.