Earlier this summer, when one of my cousins came to visit from Paris, it occurred to me that she might like to look at the two or three family photo albums we have at our house that I’d been organizing and reorganizing obsessively. Both my French and American cousins spent hours poring over the pictures, and requesting copies, and Mom spent the next few days at the library scanning the pictures and downloading them to drop box, for everyone in the family to share.
My grandmother was the keeper of the family photo albums, and showed them to us as the only form of entertainment she could offer when we visited her. I loved the black and white pictures of serious people and children in sailor suits. I loved knowing that I was connected to this ongoing story and I wasn’t just a solitary blip in time.
I don’t know what it means that my grandmother created and kept the photo albums. She wasn’t a storyteller, she was a collector: colored glass, interesting people, recipes, and photo albums full of disconnected moments in time. When we looked through the photo albums at her house, she stood at a distance, and when we asked questions, she answered in one or two words, or not at all. She could only offer us the pictures, not the lives behind them.
After her death, my aunts divided up the photo albums and furniture and books. I don’t know if they looked through the boxes and made conscious decisions, or if they just put things where there seemed to be room. My French aunt took the blue and white sofas and put them in her country house, I have the old rocking chair with red cushions and a few photo albums, and the largest box of family photo albums was in my other aunt’s attic in Queens. Untouched. And after my cousin’s visit, I had to go get that box. I spread the photo albums out on the floor of the living room: a lot of them were falling apart at the binding, or had lost their stickum, and pictures were falling out the sides.
It was exciting to finally see so many pictures of my cousins as children, because they were all together each summer at my grandparents’ house in Lake Placid, even my brother was there one summer as a baby, but the house was sold the summer before I was born. We were rarely anywhere at the same time after that. One set of cousins or the other would visit, or my brother and I would visit our grandparents, but there were no big family gatherings again like those summers in Lake Placid.
But the great discovery was the dogs! All of these dogs I’d heard about over the years were finally visible. We are a dog family, no matter what else we are. My Grandmother, severe and moody, loved Rufus. My mom, skinny and lonely, had Minky by her side. Even the housekeeper, dour and apart, had Chihuahuas – given to her by my grandfather, for company – dogs that really did make her a part of the family. Dogs have magical powers to soften the harsh edges of life, and people. There was Lady, and Minky, and Rufus, and Hercules, and Bijou, and Sarika. The dogs were much easier to love than the people, but all of the people loved the dogs.
Through all of this, Cricket and Butterfly wandered around and sniffed. I don’t think they could identify which particular pictures were of their doggy relatives, but there were interesting smells everywhere nonetheless.
It’s going to take a while to scan all of these pictures, but it will be worth it, to keep the family narrative intact so that we all know where we came from and that we are different strands of the same complicated family story.