I received a packet in the mail yesterday. It was from the executor of my uncle’s estate. My uncle Tom died in Fort Myers, Florida, a few weeks ago at the age of 90. He was the last of my parents’ generation. His wife, my aunt Eleanor (my father’s sister), died the previous year. I now own the distinction of being the oldest living member of my family.
In the large envelope were dozens of old photographs. Some are professional sepia images dating back more than a hundred years. I spent the next hour slowly reviewing each one. Fortunately many of them were identified on the back with names and dates. The oldest were portraits of my uncle’s grandmother, born January 6, 1862 and his great-grandmother, born in Ireland a generation earlier.
The photos of my uncle as a little boy made me smile. There he is on a tricycle in the 1920’s. There he is in a school photo circa 1930 with a mischievous smile on his face. It is in a cardboard folder, and on the back are the words: “To Mary From Tommy With Love.” That was probably his sister Mary Lou. There is even a place to paste a two cent stamp to send the photo through the mail.
There is a high school graduation photo of one of my uncle’s friends. There are photos of my uncle Tom and his sister, Mary Lou, who died in 1968, and his mother Helen, who died in 1986. There is Tom as a young sailor and at his college graduation. There is my aunt and uncle’s 8x10 wedding photo.
I only knew my uncle as a gruff old man who seldom spoke. Even when I was a child he seemed like a solemn man. But here he is smiling with his mother and sister, whom I never knew. Here was a man who lived his life. Here is a whole family of people who lived their lives.
Among the pictures was the death certificate of my aunt Eleanor. I had forgotten that her middle name was Vera, which is now my one year-old granddaughter’s name. There was even a photo of me sitting with them at Ames Farm in Gilford, where they spent summers for decades. There is another photo of my great-grandfather Davis’ camp on Bow Lake, purchased in the 1890’s.
There was even a photo of our Baptist Meetinghouse here in Sandwich, taken in 1993 with my name on the sign. They were proud that I was a minister, although they hadn’t stepped inside a church since their wedding.
As I peruse this collection of old photographs, I realize that they are memories. Not my memories. They are his memories. Happy times. Full lives. No one now living remembers most of these people and events. But they are recorded in these photos.
We all have memories. We are someone else’s memories. I know I am in countless wedding and baptism photos in family albums. If the photos survive our disposable culture, they will become old photographs. Someone’s nearest living relative will look at those photos and smile at the forgotten memories.