A few weeks ago, I wrote about why I take pictures (all the pictures) and about one of the people who drove that need. That person, my grandmother, passed away on September 19th and, while not wholly unexpected (her health had been slowly declining over the past couple of months), my heart is, nonetheless, shattered into a million pieces.
Loss is a funny thing. The news came in the middle of the night (my phone rang at 12:32 am) and, immediately upon hearing what my heart already knew, I remembered………nothing. Not one memory from my lifetime with her. Instead, every unsaid thing that I yearned to say to her, and planned to say to her during a scheduled visit in a few weeks’ time, flooded my mind. I wanted to thank her for loving me, to tell her that my life has been better because she was such a big part of it, that *I* have been better because of her influence, and a million other things that I hoped she already knew, but I never got the chance to say out loud. It wasn’t until the following day, when I arrived in her hometown, that the memories came. At first, they were just flickers and then it became a highlight reel, bombarding me left and right, and now, every time I close my eyes in a quiet moment, something new and specific and wonderful and, yes, heartbreaking greets me. Maybe, by keeping those memories from me, my brain was protecting my heart in those first few hours in the middle of the dark night, but whatever the reason, I’m grateful that the memories took their time to find me so I can, in turn, take my time with them.
But, I don’t just have my memories. Now, I’m the keeper of hers, too, by way of boxes and boxes of old photographs (it appears that my mission to document everything is an inherited trait). She didn’t take them, but she sure collected them. Print, by print, by print, by print. I’ve known about her collection for years and my need to come home with it was palpable. These pictures are my last remaining link to her and I need them almost as much as I need my next breath. If you gave me a stack of gold, I’m not sure I’d find it to be more valuable than what I brought home with me in those boxes.
My grandmother’s early life was defined by significant amounts of sadness and tragedy. Everyone (everyone) in her immediate family (father, mother, brothers and sister) passed away at a very early age. Before she knew it, she was the only one left; all she had was her memories. And pictures. So. Many. Pictures. My grandmother spent her life quietly keeping the memories alive of those who had gone before her with a story here, a reference there and, I listened. I listened all the time. I soaked it up like a sponge. Much in the way that I feel like I could write a novel about my grandmother, I’m sure she felt like she could write a novel about all of those people who had long since passed. Thanks to those stories and mentions, I know who most of these people in her pictures are. I know her parents, her brothers (even the one who died at the young, young age of 19), her sister, her sisters-in-law and more. I never met them, but feel like, on some level, I had. But, there are so many other people that I don’t know. My grandmother’s archives date back to the 1900s. And, I don’t mean the 1910s or 1920s. I literally mean 1900. Brittle, yellowed and fragile, I’ve now inherited the road map to my family’s past. Then, there are the pictures of my grandparents, my Mammaw & Pop. Beautiful and handsome, young and happy. In love, both with each other and their life together. Yeah……I know the stories. But I don’t know all of them and, as I sift through all of these photographs, I would give anything (anything) to hear her tell me just a few more.
And, so, here is my plea to you. Get off of your devices (Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, even this blog can wait) and go have a conversation. Call or go visit the person or people who matter the most to you and gather the stories. Know where they came from so you can know where you came from. And, of course, take the pictures, but not just the posed, staged and perfect ones; the real memories, the ones that will sustain you for years to come, lie in the imperfect, spontaneous moments. Then, for the love of God, print them. PRINT THEM. Actual, tangible prints that you can hold in your hands—not just the bound, pretty, easy-to-keep-stacked-and-stored photo books. Because, one day, someone in your life will also be shattered and those prints will be their lifeline to you.
For 39 years, 6 months and 22 days, there was someone on this earth who loved me unconditionally, who was never angry with me (not once), who was never disappointed in me, who was never harsh with me. She just loved me. In her eulogy, the pastor at her funeral chose, rightfully so, to focus on the fact that my grandmother was a hard worker. And she was. But, I don’t think it was just a dedicated work ethic that drove her—at least not in the way it drives most people. My grandmother was driven by love. And, of all the lessons she taught me over the past 39 and a half years, love, faith, kindness, patience, forgiveness and perseverance were, without question, the most important. I am the person that I am, in large part, because of the person she was and, for that, I will be eternally grateful.
I’ve been “okay” for the past several days. Today is my day to not be okay, because I’m not. I am devastated. My heart is broken in a way that it never has been broken before. But, I know I will be okay again, because she taught me how to be.