Sunday, March 13, 2011

How The Story Ends

Until last week, I had never seen a photo of my grandfather before he was married to my grandmother. I had never seen him as a little boy. I knew he was born in Kentucky. I knew all the dates and names there are to know. I even found out he'd married someone before my grandmother, and that my father has a half brother out there somewhere. Family secrets just don't hold up against public records and a dedicated genealogist.

I was working online when another woman contacted me through, and said she was a distant cousin, and had photos of my grandfather as a boy. She sent me copies, and I waited with baited breath for the ultimate goal of any genealogist, the elusive "identified photograph." When they arrived, I poured over them, and then proceeded to digitize them so I could put them on the site.

As I was loading them I saw it. I'd looked at the photo a dozen times at least, but this time I saw him. My grandfather, young, maybe not yet twenty, smiling the same smile my father has, the same smile I look at every day in the mirror. There he was, younger than I am now, before my grandmother, before my dad. A life full of opportunity yet to be lived.

His life flashed through my mind in the form of all the photos I'd seen of what came after this one. Marrying my grandma, enlistment, the war, the lifetime of service to Ac Delco in Flint, Michigan, riding motorcycles with my dad, the deaths of his parents, the accident that would claim his arm and make him the old man I knew in my childhood, the loss of my grandma, and finally, his own death.

Here I was looking at this photo of a young man with everything in front of him, and yet it was all behind him now. In that instant, I felt many things, among them, loss.

My "Gramps" died when I was only twelve, and his grumpiness in those days made me afraid of him. I really never knew him at all. What I would give to sit next to him with these photos and say, "Who was that?" "Where was this taken?" "How old are you here?" The stories connected to these photos are lost forever.

We look at photographs everyday and comment to each other on Facebook, or in family groups as they're passed around, "Oh, you look so young there," or "Wow, you looked so beautiful that day, how happy you were." Yet there will come a time when nobody knows anyone in the photos we leave behind. Someday, a descendant of mine will look at an old photo of me, taken when I was young, with my whole life ahead of me, and that descendant will already know how the story ends.

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