The family plot is in the well-shaded Sunset Cemetery in Shelby, 40 or so miles west of Charlotte in the foothills. This past Thanksgiving, on a sunny afternoon, my cousin Charles and I paid a visit. Here was the family circle, with our grandparents, his mother, my mother and father, infant children of our grandparents who like some in the early 1900s did not survive childbirth or early childhood.
The largest marker was given to two uncles, both of them killed in service in World War II training missions. We grew up hearing about their good humor, seeing them in black-and-white photographs. The younger was college-age; the older one at the time of the last photographs was married and his wife was expecting.
The baby would be born after his father’s death in that training plane crash. Sometimes, through the years, we seemed to lose track of this cousin, though he remained on our minds and we got occasional photographs and a rare visit. Partly, it was because he lived out west; his strong mother had married again, to a very good man who proved a loving stepfather, but she wanted her boy to keep his father’s name.
He has been long on the West Coast now, had two sons, and the last time I heard from him was five years ago, when my mother died.
She had loved him so, and put together scrapbooks that always gave him a prominent place. When he was a toddler, she and other family drove to Oklahoma to see him. It was an attempt to maintain the unbroken family circle and perhaps, to let their son and brother know they were not going to let go of his boy.
And that circle was never broken, though it faded, I suppose. But until this Christmas Day, I’d seen no picture of him or his boys in many years. And then, through the Internet of course, there was a photograph of him, his sons, his mother on her birthday, and the new addition to the circle, his granddaughter.
No breathless holiday poem was etched underneath. But here was a story of a family, a story balancing happiness and sadness and even tragedy, there in that photograph. If there was a lesson in it for me, it was that the holidays are a good time not to file away new cards, but to go through the family albums that tell our stories. Someone, our mothers mostly, put albums like these together over half a century or more. Today, they’ve faded to the instant-coffee “memories” on Facebook.
The lady in the middle, my aunt, has just turned 100 years old! Her face is gentle and smiling, despite all of the hardships she’s overcome. In her arms is her great-granddaughter, and beside her is her son, now somewhere around 70 I guess, with a long beard. His sons, toddlers when I saw them last, flank the family group, bearded and smiling.
I thought of that last visit to the cemetery, and how, when my cousin would visit Shelby, our grandmother likely would take him to that cemetery and cry over his resemblance to his father and tell him stories about him, which had to be tough, but he listened for her sake.
Later, my mother made an effort to keep the circle tight, taking an interest in his children, writing him long letters, taking a special care with his oldest child, hoping, perhaps, to somehow be a surrogate grandparent for her long-lost brother, though distance would make that impossible.
Today, in that new photograph, the older son has a pleasant, open smile. His brother is a ringer for his father and grandfather, and the boys carry the family name now into the next generation. My mother would like that, knowing that time and distance didn’t break the circle.
All this, in a single photograph. It provided the rush of melancholy and memory without which a holiday would not be what it’s supposed to be. Now it is. May you all have a happy new year, and the gift of your own sentimental journey.
Deputy editorial page editor Jim Jenkins can be reached at 919-829-4513 or at firstname.lastname@example.org