Pictures Show That We Lived
I was rummaging through storage boxes recently when I happened across a shoebox filled to overflowing with mementos of my grandfather. The box was faded blue and yellow and was topped by his obituary as it appeared in a local newspaper in 1971. Underneath laid his death certificate and his birth certificate.
I looked at the birth certificate and read the details that identified his parents, his birthplace and the date of the event. It was an ancient document, half the size of the tabletop, but even in this fragile state, it still shouted out a certain 1885 official status. The death certificate was minuscule in proportion to its larger-than-life dark cousin. The smaller document, barely 8?X11?, gave the statistical details of the death of Arthur George Harrison. The two documents were piled atop bundles of photos.
A young man stared at me formally from under a bowler hat ? the same young man in a one-piece knee-length bathing costume, doing muscle poses with friends. A faded photo of at least a dozen people gathered around an ancient couple all in black ? a prairie steam tractor ? a young woman standing on the running board of a model ?T? Ford ? a baby in a pram, seemingly being babysat by a goat. Over the next hour I imagined many scenarios as the scenes unfolded.
Many pictures showed up of events that I would have liked to be able to attend. I loved looking at the pictures and I was swept away as I imagined being there. I knew my grandfather, but I felt curious about who the others were. Nothing brings a family history and memories alive like pictures. While it’s great to know the name of your great-great grandmother, seeing her face in a photo makes it personal. I looked through almost three quarters of the photos before I, like the afternoon light, started to fade. As I replaced the treasures in the tired old shoebox, I was careful to put the two official documents back on top. My grandfather?s obituary notice covered them both.
As I closed the lid I felt fulfilled, yet sad. I had perused hundreds of pieces of paper in the past few hours ? but to what purpose? Memories of my grandfather stirred my soul, but I came to an important realization that afternoon. A birth certificate tells the world that you were born ? a death certificate tells the world that you died ? but pictures tell the world that you had a life. I vowed to organize my own photographs in some semblance of order so that one day, if a grandchild or great grandchild, stumbles upon my life-in-a-box or my life-on-a-disc, they will walk with me for an afternoon and have a sense of who I really was.