there is a gold frame around the old black and white photograph. a still life of a family. it was taken in the 1920s and it captures the still-life of my sweet poppo’s family…at that very moment: his dad, his mom, his brothers and sisters as young children and babies.
i don’t have another like it; there is not another portrait – at least not in my collection of photos – that has both his biological parents and all his brothers and sisters. my dad lost his mom to metastasized breast cancer when he was merely eight years old. my grandpa married a woman – the only paternal grandmother i knew – who was willing to take on six growing children. life was not still.
in the way that families sometimes splinter, my dad’s family lost touch after the death of my grandparents. there was some rift and there were plenty of hurt feelings and, then, there was silence. i grew up the rest of my life without my cousins, without sharing in their stories, without the chance to know them or love them. it was like the still-life-portrait was carefully cut up and only my dad was left.
one of my uncles had drowned in the swimming hole in upstate new york during their teenage years. another uncle was lost at sea during the war. i think my third uncle passed somewhere along the way maybe in brooklyn, where they all grew up, as did one of my aunts, a fun-loving californian who always went by her nickname. and the aunt who had children – who would be my first cousins, wished for but lacking in my own circles – was in new england.
a couple years ago – after i broke my wrists – when i was sitting with casts and a laptop and the pandemic had just begun, i decided to google them. i wrote a bit about finding them – a golden moment of connection. suddenly, through research and social media and, unfortunately, posted obituaries, i discovered two of my four cousins.
i reached out, one on either coast. they reached back. and the ripped pieces of portraits that could have been taken through the years began to assemble. tiny bits of photo paper, a little glue, stories to be told.
my dad – on the other side but not too far away – smiled when i had my first conversation with his sister, my aunt. he no longer remembered the details of whatever the rift was and, besides, it was a ridiculous fifty years prior. how long does one hold onto these kinds of things?
my aunt, with a touch of brooklyn and a touch of boston, told me stories and i really pined to meet her, to hug my dad’s sister, to hear of my dad as a youngster, to sit with her. but covid and fragile health sadly combined to prevent this.
my cousin called while we were driving to the grocery store. he told me that earlier in the morning his momma, my 99-year-old-would-have-been-100-in-three-months-aunt helen, had died. once again, the still-life photo shattered. i would not capture a picture of us together, our jowls matching, perhaps our eyes, perhaps the curve of our faces. i watched her service online yesterday, trying to memorize the smiles and tears of my lost-now-found relatives.
i’m grateful for the brief conversations and the fact that she knows i looked for her, for her children. i’m grateful to have contact with two of my cousins and to someday meet their families and the families of my other two cousins who were holding a spot for their momma in that other plane. with great joy i listen to stories they tell me and i know that we’ll share time and snapshots, close-ups, wide angles, portraits, candids – reaching back and reaching forward – of our lives together.
i learn every day to let go, to hold on, to appreciate it.
the still-life is never really still.