Approaching a couple of life’s mile markers prompted me the other evening to go back through some old boxes of photos. I can’t exactly say this began a walk down memory lane, for these were not my photos—they were the photos bequeathed by a dead great-uncle upon my now-dead first husband. I had tucked away this box years ago, stymied by the fact that none of the older man’s living relatives of that time knew the identities of the photos’ many subjects—somehow fooling myself into thinking that, if I waited, I’d figure out a way to identify these mystery people.
Not that all the photos were unmarked. This great-uncle had moments of sterling organization, in which he carefully noted subject matter of each snapshot. Unfortunately, most of those photos were of extravagant trips abroad, or of his beloved dog or vacation home in the mountains. Yet it was the people—the people—that I yearned to know more about.
Sorting through those many pictures of things, I came across one photo of an imposing piece of furniture, labeled on the reverse in careful script. “This was given to us by my cousin Leona Grant of Alameda. It belonged to her father’s parents and was brought around the horn in 1860.”
Around the Horn?! It was a beautiful antique. And yet, it now resided in the home of someone who was not a blood relative of the man who brought it this long way and preserved it for future generations. This unknown cousin must have been from Leona’s mother’s line—a lucky recipient, but not one whose family line entitled her to the gift.
Leona must always have been a giving person. She seemed eternally grateful that someone would come to visit her in her aged isolation, ensconced in the now-darkened family home. But the gifts we often received upon our arrival—gifts we certainly never required but somehow always obliged her by accepting—were never of this caliber. Who was this cousin? Did she care about this family line and what the travels of this owner meant? Did she even know the father’s name—or his father’s?
I knew these things—at least I was beginning to ferret out this information. I had no idea the heritage I was transcribing on paper had corresponding tangible evidence in the accoutrements of this life’s home. Those items—pictures, pieces of furniture and other collectibles—seemed to be a handle to hold on to the people they once represented. How could we not have received some token of who these family members were? All that was left to us was an old woman’s words and the recollections I could capture on paper.
I would have loved to be given some token of such a heritage—to vicariously live the life of these forebears through the possessions representing their journey through life. How could such an opportunity to hold, to have, such things have slipped through my fingers? When Leona and her remaining brother—the man whose photo box I was now sifting through—were gone, that was the last of that generation for our family. There would be no remembrance other than the poor reconstruction of her reality that I raced the clock to capture.
By the time I met great-aunt Leona, she was in her mid-eighties and doing poorly. Coming to see her to “get” was not an appropriate mission when her needs were so great. Of course, I had no idea at the time what I might be missing. Now that I know what could—might, should—have been ours, though, I can see it would have been a nice touch to be bequeathed with such a piece of history. But the more important task for us, in our time, was to console the lonely being inside that dark house with the message that we were not there for her gifts—we were there for her.
Tomorrow: meeting Aunt Leona.
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