What Can Old Photographs and Letters Reveal About Ourselves?

Discovering a cache of old photographs can help you find yourself.

Posted Dec 27, 2011

I find letters when cleaning out my elderly aunt's apartment in Queens; these words, nearly indecipherable, are what she left behind: "Tell me when your train arrives so that I might be ready, my bags in the hallway and a coat over my shoulder in the early September evening. Ready." 

So she wrote to someone so close there was no name on the paper, only the imperative, the intimately demanding words, "Tell me. . . .""

I run my fingers over the ink as if expecting warmth. The paper is brittle and waxen from hands and face powder; the letters from before 1930 are stacked in careful chronology beneath the underwear of an old lady, my aunt, who was always fat, always smelling of vanilla and almond paste.  Not perfume.  She sent birthday cards, late, written in thick blotched ink. Generous and clumsy, her handwriting was simply an extension of herself. This spidery girl's writing, slanting and sharp, is nevertheless undeniably hers.

It is the quality of longing which is so unexpected to me that I read her words with an open mouth. My mind, however, takes longer to open: I cannot believe the young woman who wrote this way became the woman whose sloping shoulder I used to fall asleep against on long rides home from the beach.

These words of hers were prayers against the inevitable. Whether they--the words, the letters, the feelings-- were returned, or never sent, it hardly matters.  She saw their power fail: they were of no use.  My uncle was from the neighborhood. He had never travelled much. It was not to him that she wrote; it was not for him that she waited.

She also kept photographs. The only one that I find of myself  is from my first communion.  I know that,  on the occasion of my first communion, what I really wanted was to be a bride. I wanted to be given away. The stiff white fabric of my dress was crisp as new paper. I could hear the sounds made by my starched slip as I walked down the aisle, watching the head of the  girl before me. My new shoes slid against the marble floor and I worried that I might fall.

The boys were already kneeling, blue suits, bowed heads, hands clasped and unmoving.  One by one they retreated, sat down in assigned order. I looked through praying fingers,  jealous and  surprised after it was all over. There was no miracle.  We were all the same, every one. I had longed for this, and so I began to weep at the injustice of a God who promised that something would change, who held out arms apparently already full.

I wish now I hadn't expected so much and I most certainly wish they'd waited until I was happier to snap the photograph. Surely, even indignant and outraged, I must have had a good time at some point that day. Surely there were times when somebody was smiling. I wish I'd stumbled across a record of that lost and happier moment.
I go through even older photographs, the ones shoved into manila envelopes twenty years ago, unlabeled, unsorted. The dust from these packages rises like a bad smell, the way  old dough for old bread would smell, getting onto my hands, into my hair, all over myself. The edges of photographs crumble as I touch them. My hands seem to hold such power: I choose to look at this man here, put her down without even  wondering about her names, pick up this group, ask myself questions. I carry a few of the photographs to one of my two remaining uncles.

Whole lives are summed up by short gruff phrases:  "He died before he was thirty-- that happened then,"  as if we are speaking of a hundred thousand years ago, when animals roamed untamed, instead of fifty or sixty  years ago. Houses still stand, after all, where these people were born. It's not like I'm asking about the period of time before the earth's crust cooled, but maybe all time after a certain point becomes geologic. Maybe it's all about weather changes, land shifts, and the movement of continents away from each other. Maybe all times become important once they pass.

In the photograph I remember best, the face a woman, my age maybe, stares at me like I'm making trouble. I don't recognize her. She is surrounded by infants; they seem to grow like mushrooms all around her. None smile. Dressed in white, this was an event for them; what happened after the camera and the photographer sent them all home? Did the children tear off clean clothes to run and play in alleys and backyards? Or was this a record of a solemn event: the mother's birthday, a child's Communion? Did any of those children feel the way I did? They all sit and stand together and to fit inside the camera's frame they huddle shoulder pressing against shoulder. Only the mother is taller, sitting in the middle. Her children are old or gone by now, what with the many wars since this picture was taken, not to mention everyday dying.

There is another photograph from the 1930s: four young men at the beach, all smiling, arms around one another. They look at a point slightly beyond the camera. They don't picture me.