Mysteriously, like distorted life forms in a ’50s horror movie, boxes of cards, letters, Boy Scout badges, elementary school drawings, birthday party favors — and photographs! Endless photographs! – seep into our lives from the recesses of the attics and closets. I throw nothing out and it’s stressful; I throw anything out and the next day I need it. The house of our friend Sara burned to the ground in a San Diego fire last year, as she has begun to recover from the shock, she says, “At least we don’t have all that stuff anymore.”
And then, there’s the payoff. In a late-life marriage, such as I have, many boxes are filled with unfamiliar faces. Here was one album, filled with photos of a young family in the ’70s – a mop-headed, skinny father with sideburns wearing blue leisure suits and a mother in a Gunne Sax granny dress and…teased bouffant hair? Cultural tip-off: long-straight hair was the hippie norm; I don’t know these folks.
“Who’s this?” I asked John, my husband, and he flipped through the pages, enchanted. Somehow, as stuff has a life of its own, this album had come into our lives without previously passing before his eyes. Nevertheless, it belonged to him: Its contents held the story of his life with his boys, the big house he’d owned in Ohio, pictures from the Christmas his parents drove east from Minnesota.
“But, who’s this?” I repeated. A man who looked something like John was napping with a child that looked something like one of John’s grandsons.
“Oh!” John said, and his voice caught in his throat. “That’s Dad. And Mike, when Mike was 10.” His father and his son.
And that is the moment we save for: when a picture transcends its faded colors and careless, amateur composition, when it stops being stuff, and becomes the stuff as dreams are made on — the stuff of life, giving our hands strength to clasp the trembling past and reach forward to the small, trusting grip of the future.