Recently my aunt died. She was the younger sister of my late mother, and they both died at a relatively young age. It seems at times like this that one is drawn to photographs of the deceased person to look for examples of happier times by which to remember them. And so I decided to take a look and see.
Digging through the many boxes of my past, I came upon a shoebox filled with pictures from the late 1960s and 1970s. Although my favorite colors are usually black and white, happily in this case, the pictures were in living color and rather well preserved. I became drawn to one particular picture, dated 1969, where I saw a group of young, happy people, on an obviously warm summer day, with smiles all around, posing for a picture on a backyard patio. The happy, smiling people in this picture were my parents, my relatives, and my entire extended family. And they were all much younger than I am now.
What colorful clothing they wore! Tweed jackets for the men, lamentable yellow pantsuits for the women. The women wore attractive floppy hats, and the men sported wide and rather ugly ties. My grandparents were also there in the picture, but in the background, looking somewhat more like I remember them from my childhood – old. But the young people in the picture were all so alive, vibrant, happy and smiling. And smoking and drinking, too — all on a bright and sunny summer day.
As I gazed at this picture of 1969, I began to be drawn to the eyes of my relatives. I looked into their eyes with the hindsight of 50 years into the future, knowing what would happen to each of them in this often dangerous thing called life. I knew who would struggle with an addiction, who would die of cancer, and whose marriage would end in sadness and pain.
I could see in my grandfather’s tired eyes the lingering effects of war which scarred him for life and I could see the anxiety in my grandmother’s face as she tried to deal with that. Then looking at later photographs, I saw my generation come into the picture – quite literally. The birth of my cousins brought joy to my parents’ generation. I was there in 1975, looking rather like the baby that I was.
The baptisms, the birthday parties, the first day at kindergarten, first Communions, and the new pet guinea pig, all these happy and graced events were beautifully documented. All to be put in a shoebox somewhere and only to be exhumed for poster boards at funerals. Such is the lot of the lowly photograph! They rarely tell us the complete truth, but they do serve to represent the truth we prefer to remember.
I wonder if my relatives knew, on that lovely summer day 50 years ago, what would happen to them? Of course not. Somebody takes the picture and you face the camera and smile. It’s as simple as that. But I wonder, if they had known what was to come, would they still have smiled?
This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad! We cannot predict our future. We can only rest and be sustained by God’s grace. Like a block of marble, we are being shaped by God the master sculptor. And the blows of hammer and chisel sometimes hurt when we are being formed by life. Yet God knows what he is about. If we let him into our lives, he will create something so very beautiful in us that words cannot express it.
A photograph would not do it justice because a mere picture cannot show the effects of grace upon the human soul. God was at work in the summer of 1969 in my family, and he is also at work today. Grace wins! And so we smile for the picture of life.
Recently, I walked past my grandparents’ home, the very place where the famous picture was taken in 1969. The house has been sold and resold many times, each successive owner possessing poorer taste than the last. The sands of time have shifted and buried what was once there on a sunny summer afternoon 50 years ago. And yes, most of the people in the picture are now gone, too. Gone to their judgment and please God to their reward in heaven.
What remains is the photograph and the memories. Pictures of them. Pictures of you. And pictures of me. And perhaps one thing more, the hauntingly true refrain that today, these days, are the good old days for you and for me.
Fr. Girotti, who serves as vicar for canonical services and associate moderator of the curia for the Diocese of Green Bay, is author of “A Shepherd Tends His Flock.”