First Person / Photo album: It's gone now, but its family stories live on
Although I have always been an avid reader, eager to lose myself in the magical world of language, my favorite book as a child, teenager and adult contained no words. Yet this book told me stories filled with colorful characters and exotic places; it told me who I had been and who I might become.
When I first saw the family photo album, I fell in love with its heavy cardboard binding that had the same rosy complexion as Grandma's cheeks after she daubed them with rouge. Embossed on the cover of the album was an oval painting of a cameo vase holding Monet-like lilies. But it was the inside of the album that captivated me -- page after page of thin black paper that contained black-and-white photos, beginning with the early 1900s and ending shortly after my birth in 1947.
I loved cuddling with Grandma -- her soft, pillow-like body was perfect for cuddling -- and hearing stories about my grandfather, the man who posed with such a jaunty look, not aware when the camera clicked that he would die in the 1918 flu epidemic.
I loved how my mom would take time from finishing yesterday's work and preparing for tomorrow's demands to identify bearded men and apron-clad women as the family and friends who gave her Hill District childhood its traditions and tastes.
And I loved how Dad, the best storyteller in the family, would use pictures to transport me to his school days in Chicago where he ate shrimp in Ralph Capone's club and wowed the ladies with his thick hair and mustache.
I would study the faces -- some solemn as if the camera had captured them at a disastrous "road not taken" moment, and others smiling that forced smile that the camera demands. I would search for family connections in a long, straight nose or large bottom lip, and I would invent tales starring people about whom I knew little or nothing.
Time turned the black-and-white photos into blurred yellow ones that gave everyone a jaundiced appearance. When water from a broken pipe soaked the album and washed away individual features, the album -- and my past -- landed in the incinerator.
After the death of the photo album more than a decade ago, I felt anchorless and rootless -- a woman with no history, an orphan with no ancestors. Without the album as a tangible reminder of my past, I worried I would forget everything and everyone who made me who I am.
To cope with my grief, I remember going for a walk -- my usual way to clear cobwebs from my mind and aches from my heart.
As I strolled through the neighborhood, I suddenly saw Grandma standing in her dining room near the table with the white plastic cloth that looked like lace and the centerpiece of artificial flowers whose petals sometimes got dusty but never wilted. Using a silver-serving knife -- one whose polished surface reflected the anticipation in my eyes -- Grandma cut me a gigantic piece of just-out-of-the-oven apple pie and smothered it with velvety vanilla ice cream. As I ate, she told me about growing up in New Kensington and learning how to bake from her mother, the great grandmother she kept alive for me through stories.
At first I did not understand why this picture suddenly appeared before me, but then I realized I was standing outside a bakery. The aroma from the apple pie in the store had triggered a vision of Grandma.
From that moment on, more and more small things in my world caught me unaware and took me back to those people and events I thought I had lost with the album.
The explosive strips of red in a sunset revealed Ma as she sat in her easy chair and mended pajamas, darned socks or tightened loose buttons. Her eyes, tired from years of use and weakened by glaucoma, needed a bright red thread to help her see against the white or dark background of the material.
A song from the "oldies" radio station I played in my car gave me Grandma again as she concentrated on her crossword puzzle, humming to Frank Sinatra and Ma, then standing at the kitchen counter breading veal chops and singing along with Johnny Mathis.
The weight of a book in my lap brought me Dad as he took me to the old East Liberty library and nourished my imagination with reading. I saw Dad and me sitting in the Chevy and gobbling hot dogs drowned in chili from the original Station Street Hot Dog Shoppe because Dad always connected a library visit with a hot dog treat.
I have accepted that the family photo album, with its fragile pages and black tabs that held the four corners of each photo in place, is gone, and that I will not be able to bequeath it to my son and daughter. But I can give my children the stories told by the album -- their heritage -- and encourage them to see the world not only with their eyes but with all of their senses. They too will learn that treasured memories survive without an album to hold them.
First Published September 22, 2012 12:00 am