I feel old, young, omniscient and humbled in looking at this photograph. It is of my great-grandparents and the first four of their ten children. I think of the reality of that day for them – how they arrived at the studio (car? buggy? on foot?) – what they did afterwards (dinner? work? conversation? argument?) – what building the studio was in, what it looked like from the outside – who the photographer was – if the kids were cooperative or not.
I know so little.
I know so much.
I know that they will eventually have ten children evenly split between girls and boys. I know of sorrows to come, and joys, how many anniversaries they will celebrate, and that he will live to see 100 but that she will not. I know that most of their children make it into their nineties and many of the accomplishments and joys and sorrows their children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren will experience.
Yet that was a real day, a real time, before all this other was known or could be known.
There is a poem by Anne Morrow Lindbergh (1906-2001) in which she expresses these same things in looking at a photograph of her parents. She puts it so much better than I can. This is a long poem. Read it as a story rather than a poem. Think of her as a friend who has just found a picture of her parents and is talking out loud with you present.
(On a photograph of my father and mother just married)
My parents, my children:
Who are you , standing there
In an old photograph – young married pair
I never saw before, yet see again?
You pose somewhat sedately side by side,
In your small yard off the suburban road.
He stretches a little in young manhood’s pride
Broadening his shoulders for the longed-for load,
The wife that he has won, a home his own;
His surging powers hidden as spring, unknown,
But surging in him toward their certain birth,
Explosive as dandelions in the earth.
She leans upon his arm, as if to hide
A strength perhaps too forward for a bride,
Feminine in her bustle and long skirt;
She looks demure, with just a touch of flirt
In archly tilted head and squinting smile
At the photographer, she watches while
Pretending to be girl, although so strong,
Playing the role of wife (“Here I belong!”),
Anticipating mother, with man for child,
Amused at all her roles, unreconciled.
And I who gaze at you and recognize
The budding gestures that were soon to be
My cradle and my home, my trees, my skies,
I am your child, staring at you with eyes
Of love and grief for parents who have died;
But also with omniscience born of time,
Seeing your unlined faces, dreams untried,
Your tentativeness and you brave attack,
I am no longer daughter gazing back;
I am your mother, watching far ahead,
Seeing events so clearly now they’re gone
And both of you are dead, and I alone,
And in my own life now already past
That garden in the grass where you two stand.
I long to comfort you for all you two
In time to come must meet and suffer through,
To answer with a hindsight-given truth
The questions in those wondering eyes of youth.
I long to tell you, starting on your quest,
“You’ll do it all, you know, you’ll meet the test.”
Mother compassionate and child bereft
I am; the past and present, wisdom and innocence,
Fused by one flicker of a camera lens
Some stranger snapped in laughter as he left
More than a half a century ago –
My children, my parents.