Pictures of Us


My sister-in-law’s been going through her attic and stumbling on ancient family photos along the way.  She’s scanned them and emailed them to us in groups.  Most of the photos are of individuals or groups posed carefully and solemnly for a camera that required the subject to stay still for several minutes.

The clothes and the hair are different, but the stories they tell are very familiar.   There’s a great-grandmother who once wrote and published short stories.  There’s a great-grandfather who owned a music store.  I’m hoping to see a photo of a great-grandmother who was a Mohawk and the story of whose union with the family I hope to discern someday.

I’ve always been a history buff, and especially a family history buff.

It started one summer when my aunt and uncle were visiting and my uncle was relating the story of how they had met and married despite strong objections from my aunt’s mother (my grandmother).  He was German, and she was American, and my grandmother was very unhappy at the idea of my aunt moving so far away in an era when long-distance phone calls were still extremely rare.  My uncle was not so easily deterred and, after having received a reluctant refusal, had flown from Germany to Chicago and then driven 6 hours to find my aunt and make his case.  As he told the story, remembering how their 50+ year marriage had almost not happened, a tear ran down his face.  I, like all the other females at the table, decided this was the most romantic story that had ever been told in our family.

The next day, I began to wonder if there were other stories that had simply not been told.  Subsequent trips to our annual family vacation spot became research opportunities, and when a knowledgable aunt was visiting, I began tape recording them as they related the family stories.

In that time I’ve learned about another pair of star-crossed lovers whose parents, a generation ago, had objected to their marriage on the grounds that they were different races and from different countries.  That couple is still married.   I learned how my grandparents, despite Grandmother’s summers spent near Grandfather’s home town never met until they were adults because they lived in completely different worlds.  And I’ve learned that I love the stories of how people come together.

We live in a world where the stories that make the headlines are about people being driven apart.  They’re about lives being blown apart.  Often, the even the storytelling becomes a wedge, breathing distrust into every disagreement until the participants hardly recognize each other as members of the same species.  Over the past year, I’ve made more of an effort to look for the other stories – the ones that bring people together.  I used to be embarrassed about my love of romantic stories of people overcoming odds to be together, but now I think they’re an expression of faith that people can actually do that.

I’m looking through the photos and stories of my husband’s family, one photo stands out.  It is a picture of a husband and wife, the husband staring at the camera while the wife leans her head on his shoulder.  They both have wistful smiles on their faces.  It’s from the late 1800s, and their clothes date the picture more than the aged sepia.  I know their world was a million miles away from mine.  When I look at the serenely happy and casual pose, however, I realize that they look a lot like us.  It’s a story worth pursuing.

Honor Thy Family, Honor Thyself

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My mother’s parents, in their later years, moved from Hawaii, where they’d spent much of their retirement, to Ohio so that they could be closer to their children and grandchildren.  My grandmother suffered a series of debilitating strokes soon after they moved, and my parents, especially my mother, became instrumental in supporting both my grandparents, emotionally and, often, logistically.  

My mother made sure our family visited them regularly during the week.  She helped my grandfather adjust to his new roles of caretaker, housekeeper and cook – tasks my grandmother had primarily done during the fifty-plus years of their marriage.  When my grandmother passed away, my parents – geographically the closest of his children – continued the Sunday dinners and afternoon visits with my grandfather.  They took him on family vacations, provided (in the case of my father) second medical opinions, and did everything they could to ensure that he was independent but not alone in the last years of his life.

It was labor, but there was more love than obligation in it.  Although I know both my parents felt blessed to have those last years with my mother’s parents, it was not always easy.  Watching both parents rise to the occasion with love and grace, however, was a powerful lesson for me and my sister.  It is one I think about often as my parents have started their retirements.

So when, at the first meeting of the Hubbard Hall Writer’s Workshop, Diane Fiore revealed that she would be writing about her Saturday drives with her late father, I knew her blog would be good before I read a word.  It was.  

For most of the last year on her blog, Merganser’s Crossing, Diane has been telling the story of how what started as a daughter’s duty to help emotionally and logistically support a father suffering from increasingly intense dementia became a path to a close relationship and better understanding of her dad.  It has been humorous and heartbreaking, honest and enlightening.  Illustrated with sketches, photographs, and now, the loveliest watercolors, it is also evolving.

After learning that her mother had recently been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, Diane decided (with her mother’s support and permission) to chronicle the next phase of her journey on her blog.  Already the story has seen her and her husband move so as to support her mother’s needs better.  As she writes simply but compellingly of her new life, navigating the changes and relationships, the same love and grace I once saw in my parents comes shining through.  

We live in an often harsh world.  Too often culture and media not only reflect that harshness, they amplify it.  It makes stumbling on a story like Diane’s all the more valuable and inspiring.  It’s an oasis of kindness and hope, and it’s worth visiting again and again.