I think a part of me was born old. I have always felt a strong attraction to times past. In an antique store I can spend hours sifting through old photographs and sepia-toned postcards sent to someone’s friend or relatives long deceased. It isn’t a nostalgia for times past. It is a sense of having actually lived in those times. Those pieces of yellowed card stock are like little gateways to the past, a doorway to days lived and lost.
I look at the images and wonder what was life like back then? What did these people want in their lives? Who did they love? Did they find love? What became of them? And sometimes, if I am deeply in the time warp, I ask, a bit morbidly, how did they die?
The great American short story writer, O. Henry, purportedly once said that when he walked down a street, he could imagine a story in every house. This is what happens for me when I view images of people and places. The ones clearly from past times are especially evocative for me. They seem to call me to come to them and hear their stories, to know their joys and sorrows.
Many years ago, I was the house psychologist for a large skilled nursing facility. Most of the residents had been parked there by relatives who couldn’t or wouldn’t care for them in the last years of their lives. I was a relatively new therapist and certainly had no experience with this population. When I started, I was worried that I would not be able to relate to these people so many years my senior. Then one day I started to ask the residents to tell me their life story. I would often start by asking if they had been born in California or had moved here from somewhere else. I did this because so much of California’s history is told by the waves of migrations coming to the Golden State from across the country and around the world.
The stories the nursing home residents told me were like living postcards. It was amazing to me how residents who had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s could describe in great detail people and places from long ago. These were the same ones who couldn’t remember what they had eaten five minutes before. They told me stories of coming to California from the Dust Bowl in the 1930’s to pick fruit in the big orchards in the Central Valley. They told me about their experiences of World War Two, this often being how many ultimately ended up in California. One woman, diagnosed with dementia, who always tried to pinch my butt if I got too close, told me about being a seamstress at a local Army camp. She delighted talking about all the handsome young guys she “went dancing” with as she gave me a knowing wink. The black and white photograph on her bedside table was of a strikingly beautiful young woman, clearly the image of the now withering person in the hospital bed in front of me. The day after telling me about her dancing partners and once again trying to give my backside a pinch, the staff told me she had died peacefully in her sleep.
In a large plastic storage bin in my garage at home, I have hundreds of photographs I have taken over the years. Many are photos of family but there is also a trove of black and whites from when I got my first camera at age ten. These were taken with an inexpensive Kodak that I got for Christmas. It probably came from the local Rexall pharmacy and cost all of five dollars. It took a square format picture that came back from the drugstore with crenelated edges as if they had been cut with pinking shears. On the border was stamped the month and year the film was developed. A very handy reference guide when looking at them decades later.
One photograph that comes to mind was taken not by me but by my brother. It was of a very frail looking eleven-year-old. I had contracted the A2 influenza virus in the winter of 1961-62. I missed at least two weeks of school that year. I think it was the sickest I have ever been. I got so weak that I needed help getting from my bed to the bathroom. The photo was taken near the end of my convalescence. I didn’t want my picture taken but my brother thought it was great fun to photograph me looking like a zombie from a 1950’s horror movie. I obviously still wasn’t ready to join the living and certainly lacked any sense of humor. Now it is an interesting reminder of a past pandemic, a reminder that the one we are currently in isn’t the first and certainly will not be the last. It says to me that life will go on.
I haven’t taken many photographs this year. Instead I have been writing a great deal. This essay is my 31st since March when the first lockdown happened. It has been my way to capture in words my personal experiences with the pandemic, reflect on and record some of the events of this tumultuous year. Words have been my camera. Sharing these essays with you, my readers, has been a balm to the separations, disappointments and sorrows of 2020. Through these essays I have felt a connection to so many people, some I know and many I have never met. These essays have been my postcards to you. Through them, I have tried to paint a picture, some personal and some hopefully universal of life in these times.
I have often felt that the present is not separate from the past. It is just the current version of what will become the past. The longer I live, the more convinced I am that we are all of the same dust that God first sprinkled on the Earth eons ago. We are not separate from each other. There are no individuals. We are merely continuations of threads of life moving through time.
As I look forward into 2021, I hope to continue to learn from the past. I hope to be reassured that life goes on, that life comes from the joys and struggles of the past, will pass through me and will journey forward to the next generation. What I do with my life and what we all do now matters. We are the benefactors of the past and the creators of the future. We are the next box of postcards and photographs in the antique store.
Thank you for being one of my readers. I welcome your comments. Please forward this to those you feel would find it interesting. Encourage them to subscribe. It is free. Writers need readers to inspire them. Love the ones you are with and the ones you wish you could be with. Be safe. Be well. Courage