Last week, my grandmother closed the book on her 93 years of life and went on to a better place. When someone we care deeply about dies, we often think about and tell others of the legacy that the departed one left to us, how they made someone a better person or taught them this or that but none of that would describe her adequately and what I could say about her I said last week at her funeral so I won’t attempt to do that here. One thing that sometimes happens though is when a loved one moves on, especially when that person holds a position of prominence in the family tree like the matriarchal one that my grandmother held; they leave behind some physical object, a possession perhaps or a keepsake, that oftentimes more than one person wants. My wife’s family has a family heirloom that literally has made its way around the family, sometimes spending a year or two with each household before moving on to the next. When my grandfather passed on, it was easy because each grandson got something of his that they wanted; a knife, a watch, a hunting rifle or some other meaningful object that can be passed on down to future generations. My grandmother left behind something a whole lot more valuable thought and for that I am extremely grateful to her because what she left has the unique ability to be shared with everyone who wants it….memories, for sure, but in her case, backed up on celluloid.
My grandparents loved to travel by automobile all over the United States and my grandmother was an avid shutterbug because at some point in the early 1960’s, she purchased a pretty nice camera and learned how to use it. While photography was by no means in its infancy then, it was still a lot more complicated than it is in today’s point-and-shoot world. She learned how to use this device, how to focus it (most of the time) and she began to record the life of her husband, children and grandchildren along the way.
Most of us have seen color photography from that era…..the transitional technology from black and white to color was still relatively new and from the moment a color photograph was developed, it was prone to start degrading, fading a little bit each year until the picture was bleached out. Unless protected from light all the time, color pictures can fade like memories until they are gone. My grandmother went a different route with her pictures. You’ll find no albums in her house filled with aging, faded color photographs…..because somewhere along the way, someone talked her into slides and because of that, a significant part of my grandparents life was preserved in “living color”. She went all out too, purchasing a Kodak Carousel slide projector, a fold up screen and over the years, about 30 “carousels”, big plastic donuts that held 80 slides in each slot. Whenever a roll of film was used up, it was sent off (no Wolf camera in those days) and maybe a week or two later, the slides arrived in orange plastic boxes ready to be loaded into the carousel.
One of my best memories of my grandparents were our Sunday-after-church lunches, a big noisy family sharing a common meal of roast beef with all the trimmings, home grown vegetables, hot biscuits, coconut cake and iced tea, all of which my grandmother prepared single handed. After the meal, my grandparents, my mother and my aunt, my two first cousins, my brother and I would adjourn to the large family room, oftentimes joined by my grandmother’s sisters and brother and their spouses a little later, where conversation would carry on for a number of hours and usually resulting in funny arguments about something someone did and who could remember the actual facts of the matter. My cousins, my brother and I would inevitably start nagging my grandmother to let us “look at slides” which always set off a lot of protests from her about not wanting to “get all that junk out” but she always gave in without much of a fight and we would scramble to turn the family room into a makeshift movie theater. The screen would come out and be set up in front of the television, the projector on the coffee table, leveled up on 4 or 5 books, drop cords run from the lone outlet at the back of the room and the heavy curtains drawn shut bringing the room to complete darkness.
It would never be possible to look at all the slides in one sitting so we picked out the favorite carousels, based on my grandmother’s meticulous notes scrawled on the sides of the storage boxes each one came in. After the inevitable fight over who was going to work the remote control slide advancer, the show would begin. Slide after slide would pop up on the screen; a flick of the toggle switch would bring it into clear focus and each slide would be commented on by my grandmother who remembered every slide and where it was taken without looking at the index card inside of each box. She took a lot of pictures of things to help her remember each trip, pictures of flowers, wildlife, mountains, deserts and of course, landmarks along the way. Images of “Route 66” and other famous byways, many before interstates crossed all over the country would flash up on the screen as the carousel turned. Usually my aunt or my mother were on these trips, and later at least one grandchild also accompanied them (they could not handle all of us on a trip longer than the distance to Daytona Beach or Panama City and now I understand why my grandfather always had a beer first thing when we got there). Those that went on a particular trip would add to the commentary their own memories or interpretations of events that occurred on that particular trip.
The best part of looking at the slides though were not the things that marked the trips but the pictures she made at or around her home or our homes and also the homes of people we knew as children. She loved her grandchildren and she made certain that our early years were marked with photographs of each of us, along with other people that were an important part of our lives; great aunts and uncles, cousins, parents, neighbors and family friends and of course, themselves. As the carousel turned, each slide displayed a moment in time, captured and preserved in vivid Technicolor for future generations not even born, images of our past that reminds us of where we came from and what our lives were like in the 1960’s and 1970’s when the four of us were growing up. Sometime in the late 70’s, my grandmother’s camera was stolen and later, when she did replace it, she started having photographs developed instead.
As we grew older and as my grandmother and grandfather aged, the large family lunches became fewer and farther between. Girlfriends and later, wives joined the family and it got too large to have everyone over for lunch so restaurants became the norm and the slides lay dormant, stored in heavy cardboard boxes in a dark cabinet, away from the light and heat, perfectly preserved and waiting for someone to want them again. We all knew they were there but they remained untouched over the years while a new generation of family came into existence. The great-grandchildren certainly spent their share of time in front of a lens but the end result was paper albums that were passed around from family to family, never capturing the communal drama, the wonder or the theatrical essence of the original slide shows. It’s like the difference in watching a major motion picture in the movie theater versus the home television; you lose something in the translation and you certainly lose the “shared experience” of the moment.
Last week, we laid my grandmother’s body to rest and I, feeling a serious need to reconnect to her, was drawn to those slides, still sitting undisturbed in their cabinet at her house. I had worried about them for several years after she left her home to go into a medical care facility, knowing that any accident, any fault of wiring or a stray lightning strike could end their existence forever. My mother, my wife, our son and I decided to go and get them out of the house and we headed up there. Entering her house is like entering a museum; everything in there is exactly the way she left it when she walked out of there four years ago other than the kitchen which was, by necessity, divested of anything perishable. The newspaper by her chair, the clippings she cut out of it, the stack of magazines waiting for her to read them, all undisturbed, and the slides all sitting captive in their individual 2” x 2” slots. To my mother and my wife, this house no doubt looked like a housekeeping nightmare but to me, it was childhood revisited, a place of happy memories of a not-so-distant past but one that grows farther away with every passing day.
We loaded up the slides, boxes and boxes of them, and found the projector and screen safely where they had always been and these all went into the SUV and safely on to our house. When I got home, I cleaned up the projector, assembled the screen, selected the first carousel and carefully turned on the loud, hot, noisy projector. Snippets of my life began to unfold once again on the screen after so many years of dormancy and I watched them. An overwhelming sense of joy, coupled with sadness, settled over me as emotions in conflict played out in my psyche while the images of my childhood and my family played out on the screen; joy at the happy memories evoked in the captured moments of time; sadness that every ancestor that was a part of that history, save my own two parents are now gone, their images frozen while still alive with the glow of life. My thoughts drifted as I considered what each person in those slides meant to me, how I related to them, how I longed deeply to go back in time and taste my grandmother’s roast beef and biscuits and hear my grandfather laugh in that way that only he could when something struck him funny, or my aunt correcting my grammar or listening to my great-aunts and my grandmother both arguing and laughing at the same time. I watched Christmases and birthdays long gone roll by in a succession of years and as each slide was unveiled, a new memory would awaken from a deep slumber out of the recesses of my mind. My son climbed in my lap and I held him while we watched a small baby grow into a young boy who, oddly enough, looked a lot like him, playing with old toys and dressed in outfits that would have been right at home on the set of the “Brady Bunch”. My emotions felt strangely conflicted and I knew I was having an acute case of nostalgia, something a lot of people my age don’t generally encounter at this stage of life.
My favorite episode of the television show Mad Men, set in the early 1960’s about a Madison Avenue advertising agency featured a short piece on how the fictional agency could help Kodak sell their new projector which Kodak wanted to call “The Wheel”. The creative force at the agency pitched it to the Kodak executives likes this: “Nostalgia….its delicate, but potent; in Greek, nostalgia literally means the pain of an old wound. It’s a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone. This device isn’t a spaceship; it’s a time machine. It goes backwards…..forwards….and takes us to a place where we ache to go again. It’s not called the wheel, it’s called the Carousel, and it lets us travel the way a child travels, around and around and back home again to a place where we know we are loved”.
For most people, where we come from and what we have experienced shapes who we are now and who we will eventually become and our memories are what reinforces our sense of history and of place and are often passed along to succeeding generations. My grandparents, aunts, uncles, all gone now, and my parents, wife and child are all part of memories that I have, and those shared experiences have contributed to who I am today. My grandmother was the last ancestor I have of her generation or the ones above her and I had her longer than any other. She was a constant force in my life and left me many happy memories of her and the experiences that we had in common, but in those slides, she left a visual record of the happiest moments in all of our lives. She chronicled events which drew us all together as family and which forged a bond that our common ground made only stronger as years went by. “All that junk” as she put it, is a window through time that we each have the privilege of gazing through, a window we cannot open or ever pass through again no matter how much we might want to, but one we want to look through just the same. Living today in the here and now, we can look back safely on the past but we cannot linger there forever, because time must go on and we march to the rhythm that it sets for us. As I remembered my grandmother this week and visited my past, I hope that where she is now, she knows what a powerful legacy she has left to her family here today and to those who will come after us. The slides have been put away and safely stored, the projector silent, the carousel now stopped. The ride may be over but the memories continue on and grow richer as time goes by. We cannot live in the past but it surely is a nice place to visit now and then and I will return here again to enjoy the memories and revisit those loved ones again.