Why do we look back? Why do we sort photos, read old correspondence, look at artifacts and articles that speak only to the past?
I recently spent a week going through photos that came to me from my dad. They started before the 1900's (yes, they did) and continued until about 1945. In his later years, he was in the process of reviewing them and making some kind of declaration of who was who, and where they were, and when.
Albert, circa 1927
He died in 2009, only a few days before his 91st birthday. Right until his very last breath, he could recount who was who, what was what, where they were, and when. He wasn't so good at what was going on. That's not strictly fair, he tried to make sense of it. He did his best to explain, extrapolate, and justify.
He died sitting in a garden chair, in his back patio, looking at the stars.
Well, he was always associated with stars, at least in my mind. But his life was not star-struck. It was hard, it was unbelievably challenged, and he soldiered through all of it.
His dad left him when he was 9. And he never really came back. But in my sorting through of the pictures and letters that he left, it was clear that his dad was basically sent away. His dad was only 32, his wife was 35, and they lived with his wife's mother, who was 54. I mention this because age, time, matters in any story. The dates and context matter. And the people in your proximity.
The time was 1927, and the date was December 21. Just before Christmas. Can you imagine that your dad would leave right before Christmas, willingly, and never, ever, really come back? He wrote some letters, and sent money when he could. My dad told me often that he could remember in great detail, the shape of his father's hands. And recognized them finally, in his own.
The family had migrated from New Jersey in or about 1920, when my dad was two years old. They left a farm in New Jersey, and came west, to find ---- fortune? peace? stability? And they had a sort of family connection in California when they arrived. They had a matriarch, Aunt Alma, who took them in, gave them shelter, and pushed them out to find their own place in the world that was Sherman (now West Hollywood).
From the records I have, my grandfather worked as a rough carpenter, machinist, and never liked the work that got his hands dirty. He had the gift of music, and found solace from his manual labors in singing and piano. He was not a generally pragmatic man, but he could rise to the pragmatic need, if convinced.
Times were hard. His mother-in-law had now moved west and had bought some property nearby. She rented space out. When times got harder, she opened a boarding house. Soon, they were all living in the boarding house owned by my great-grandmother. And as boarders came in, the family space was more and more constricted.
My grandfather bought a tuxedo. This seems to be the pivotal point in all of the relationships. The tuxedo. He bought it when times were uncertain, and he was mostly out of work, but he wanted a tuxedo so he could perform. So he bought it.
And then Aunt Alma advised that it might be time for him to return to his family in New Jersey to visit, and perhaps find work and send some money to support his family. Everyone agreed. But my dad, of course, at nine, had no voice in this decision.
My grandfather wrote many impassioned letters about returning to California. He missed his wife (although it is clear that they had not been husband and wife for some time) and his son.
But having left in December, by March he put his tuxedo to good use, and was very glad he had packed it for the journey. He was now part of a growing choral group. And he was enjoying family visits, here and there, and getting work as he could and sending money when he could.
In the meantime, my grandmother had found a full-time job as a switchboard operator for a local radio station, and worked double shifts to put food on the table. She did not ask for money from her mother, but apparently my grandfather asked his mother-in-law to advance money for her keep when he could not.
I am trying to put together this puzzle of pictures, letters, rememberances from recounts from my dad and my grandmother. I am so amazed that my grandmother kept all of my grandfather's letters, telling me to please read them when she was gone, because I would then understand what happened.
It's only part of the puzzle. And what I have written here is only from a very slanted perspective. But that's what we get. We take what we think makes sense of our past, and we try to learn from it, honor it for all its struggle and angst, all its brokenness, all of the hope and joy and disappointment, and celebrate that we are still here. We are still keeping on. In spite of, and because of, what happened.
But can we ever, truly, understand it?