Wednesday, May 7, 2014

800 Words: Awkward Family Photos

As I sit here typing in my parents' house, there are literally thousands of wet photos surrounding me, spread out upon table tops, tablecloths, towels, and floors - photos whose chronology spread from the late 1930's to the present day and document the entire adult lifetime of one 93-year-old woman. There are even more thousands in a similar state at her house. Many of these photos are absolutely priceless relics. The vast majority of them are crap that we're going to throw out a few days after she dies. But as I sit here, the main thought that occurs to me is that it's finally happened. Bubbie's mess has taken over Mom and Dad's house.

I have three heroes in my life. One is my younger brother, whose life, like Michael in Arrested Development, already seems to exist as a lifelong mission to clean up the mess created by a family of manchildren - easily the most immature of which is that seemingly perfect meld of Gob, Tobias, and Buster in his older brother. He used to work for M&T Bank, a place at which he regularly put in 17 hour days so that he might have a chance to make millions and millions. But he left after a year. He was miserable, and he was disgusted by the ultra-libertarian culture of his workplace, which he thought was potentially as corrosive as the culture of any band of religious fanatics. In its place, he went into business with his manic depressive father and his depressive-depressive brother. There are no words for the Job-like patience it must take to deal with idiots like us. I'm astonished every day at how Jordan survived being my younger brother to become so functional an adult, and how he can continue to avail himself so selflessly, knowing that he may have to continue his role of keeping this family functional for the majority his adulthood. In addition to all that, he's talented enough that he may well be the Real Estate King of Baltimore (so long as an idiot like me doesn't screw it up for him), but if he becomes that, it will be earned because he stood on principle. We live in an age when businessmen run roughshod over every principle of community and responsibility, and Jordan, even at the very beginning of his career, is a living rejoinder to why business and responsibility needn't be mutually exclusive.

The second, and by far the most crucial, is my saintly mother, who deserves a Nobel Peace Prize for managing the nearly thirty years of semi-daily explosive conflicts between me and my father. A mother who, through every horrible twist of my often ungovernable mood-swings, somehow managed to keep me fundamentally on the rails when I should have ended up in the loony bin many times over. Somehow, in every social situation, my father takes up the spotlight and dominates discussion, and my mother blends into the background. And so it is as well when you try to describe the two of them to others. But the ways that she's influenced me are too many to even attempt to elucidate here. My mother is, and will always be, my greatest hero and my best friend. She deserves a far better child than she got in me, and the example she's set for me is the model toward which I will always aspire but never come close to achieving.

But the third, and in some other ways the most important of the three, is my Bubbie. Not because she's a model of moral character or conduct, but because she isn't. Like me, Bubbie is naturally rather arrogant, and not a little insane. Jordan and Mom are nothing like me. In many ways, their personalities - meticulous and accommodating - stand in polar opposition to mine. Like my Mom's father, they exhibit that saintly quality which somehow glorifies the fulfillment of responsibility - their greatest pleasures seem to derive from knowing that they're keeping the world together, and whether or not that perception is true, it's clearly the one they want to project, and they project it very well.

For more than forty years, Bubbie's lived off my Zaydie's enormous civil service retirement pension (from the days when a pension actually meant something), and still collects money from his stock portfolio while barely changing a thing in it during the almost thirty years since his passing. She's spent the vast majority of her children's inheritance by going on international trips, justifying it by saying "they'll do fine without the money." She's held grudges against friends and family past their dying breaths, she's made all manner of scenes at family events, and the stories of her tactlessness are legendary and legion.

If that weren't enough to make her difficult to idealize, there's also the fact that she's a hoarder - not just a run-of-the-mill disorganized person, she's a real live hoarder who for all purposes didn't throw away a single article of paper from roughly 1970 to 2010. She was always around when I was a child, but I rarely went to her house, because her house was filled with piles of old newspapers and magazines that were taller than my head. Between the stacks of papers existed a small walkway that allowed you to get through every room in the house. But except for those walkways, the papers were everywhere: in the tables, on the stairs, on the sofas, on the chairs, in the sink, in the toaster, in the oven, in the freezer (!), in the attic, in the basement, on the toilet, in the bathtub...

And during all this time, she was accumulating a roll of pictures that chronicled every single event of her life. Every vacation is immortalized, every day trip within every vacation is immortalized, every course of every meal at every gathering of family and friends, every birthday of a child or grandchild. Just this past Sunday, there she was at my cousin Marilyn's 62nd Birthday brunch, and with a disposable camera she probably bought in 1993, she again captured every moment she could on film. It is as though she's declared a war of attrition on effemerality itself, and the thought that a single moment of her life did not have a record was a concession to death. Some people miss the forest for the trees, other people take in so many trees that they have a completely different view of the forest.

But of course, like all hoarders, she's too busy accumulating crap to care about how to preserve it. Last week's enormous rainstorm which damaged Baltimore's railroads also damaged another venerable institution of this city. It flooded Bubbie's basement, and potentially destroyed 75 years of photographs. And to make matters worse, we couldn't rescue them until the end of the weekend, because we had a weekend filled with precisely the kind of family events that Bubbie only cares about capturing with so little regard for preserving what she captures.

Looking at these photos has been kind of tragic. More than a few are mangled beyond any recognition. Most of the mangled photos are probably as stupid as 80% of these pictures - yet another photo of Bubbie standing next to some stupid landmark? But nobody knows what long-forgotten event disappeared forever.

Until 3 last night, Bubbie, Mom and I stayed up, separating the clumps of photos into separate piles so they might have a chance to dry. As usual, Bubbie wasn't doing much of the work - in fact, she didn't seem to care in the slightest that this record of her life is so damaged. While Mom was slaving away, she breaked for her nightly ritual of watching Charlie Rose, and Mom grumbled to me that Bubbie was 'playing the fiddle while Rome burns.' But as she has for sixty years, she kept her resentment of her mother to herself. Even after Bubbie came back, she wasn't much interested in the actual work, instead she simply started staring at the photos and telling us the stories that went with them as we (and Mom of course more than I) worked hard on making sure these photos survive.

Historical preservation is laborious, boring work. It has none of the glamour which comes from being one of the people who makes it, and yet without it, how would we know of its great achievements? The Library in Alexandria burned because Julius Caesar didn't take enough care when he burned his own ships to not start a firestorm, and with them burned the entire record of The Classical Era's achievements and sealed the decree of a five-hundred year decline that ended with a thousand years of European Dark Age.

But just as someone has to be there to preserve history, there has to be Caesars to create things worth preserving. And in this Alexandrian library of my family's past exist extraordinary things I thought I'd never see: a picture of my mother when she was 11 years old and looking almost exactly like my cousin Yael, yawning at the Seattle World's Fair; a picture of my saintly Zaydie as a young man, looking like my saintly brother almost down to the last detail; pictures of the summer camp I went to between the ages of 12 and 14, pictures of family events which I suddenly recall with crystalline clarity. An entire record of my Bubbie's long life, and consequently, of Mom's, of my family's, of mine.

Well... if she's declared war on death, she's clearly been winning for a while. She's 93 years old and exhibits not a single sign of decline at any point in the near future. My cousin Aaron, six weeks younger than her, died a few weeks ago just three months after discovering his much younger (nearly 30 years) second wife dead on the floor of their house in Mesa, Arizona. But Bubbie never remarried after Zaydie's death. For all I know, she never even dated. For nearly thirty years, she's simply lived in an impenetrable cocoon of self-affirmation, and showed that it was all she needed to live life exactly the way she wanted to - freely, on her terms, with no compromise to others necessary. Very few people exhibit signs of great happiness in their lives, and yet for as long as I've known her, Bubbie is one of the few that can radiate it every day of hers - at least when she isn't pissed off at somebody. Mom and Jordan make life bearable, but Bubbie shows that life is worth living.

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