So, after all the policies have been redeemed, bills paid, accounts liquidated, and checks cashed, what remains of a life?
Furniture, and pictures. Lots, and lots of pictures.
As it happens, my grandmother loved to take photographs. Kodaks, polaroids, you name it. And she kept them — all of her childrens’ school photos, all of the informal snaps taken at sleepaway camp (including the grainy ones of the ground, surely taken by accident), all the goofy candids taken at cocktail hours and birthday parties and Thanksgivings. All the Christmas cards and wedding sittings, and post-retirement get-togethers with the secretarial pool. All of the semi-formal group shots of cousins turned into postcards by some enterprising printer out there in the middle of Nebraska.
Many of them have notes on the back, but not all. A few were collected into albums and scrapbooks, but far few than one might expect. Most of them were simply dumped into bankers boxes, still in the envelopes (with a pocket for the negatives) that they came in from the developing service. A remarkably large number of duplicates, apparently on the theory that they would, eventually, be shared.
Well, eventually came. And here we are. With a whole life chronicled in black-and-white and full color Kodachrome, just like Paul Simon promised. And boy is it hard to see the forest for the trees.
As we go through these, sorting them into bags — one for each of her living children, one for her memorial service — I’m a little sad for every one that I throw in the trash. But what’s the point of a picture, if there’s no story to go with it? I can imagine all I want a narrative to pin to a picture of my grandmother and her first husband, apparently camping on the beach with three or four others — but really, what’s the point? That there were good times before his boozing and whoring and general bastardry ruined it all? What am I to make of the formal sitting of three of her cousins, taken nearly 80 years ago? The family scattered out of Nebraska and so how would we ever find any of their descendants. Is it really worthwhile hunting down an obituary for a twice-removed cousin?
What, in the end, are we to make of all the pictures she kept of my Uncle Mike, dead these twenty years? Pictures of a magic show he put on, perhaps at some college hijinks or other. Pictures of him in Vietnam. Pictures of him leading two unknown women on a hike at a family camping trip to Chiquito Creek (a.k.a. “the buttsliding place”).
Pictures, pictures, pictures. We all imagine we’ll put them into a scrapbook someday, and make a narrative out of our life. And somehow someday never comes. Maybe we never find the time. Maybe we’re afraid of the essential tawdriness of our lives. Which is a shame, really. Because no life is actually so poor, so blighted, that it’s not worth narrating. It’s the medium that’s the problem, really — the tackiness (often literally, given the acidic nature of the some of the cheap papers involved) of the pictures, and the unrelenting, unavoidable, irredeemable distance that contextless candids raise up like some fog in one’s vision.
I’m sure Sontag (or someone) has said it better than I. But boy is it hard to deal with IRL, as the kids say.