This morning I was browsing through old photographs on my computer (I have scanned all that I could find from old albums and collections), looking at photos of my oldest daughter, Shirley, when she was a baby. It’s her birthday, and I wanted to remember her from those first days, to recapture my feelings of that time. I became aware that I’m the only one alive who holds those memories and those feelings. She was too young to remember them, and her mother died some time ago. We lived on a little island at the time, and had few close friends.
I have other children, as well as grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Memories of them are shared memories for the most part, and it’s fun sometimes to talk about them together. Of course, my memory of a particular event is inevitably different from, say, my son’s memory of that same event, even though we were both there. I treasure all those memories.
I also remember my grandmother, Mae, when I was just a kid, pouring over her box of photographs, taking out each one and examining it, no doubt remembering the time of it and the feelings she had when it was taken. At the time I thought it interesting, but I was not involved in the relationships it represented. Now I have my own photos of her (she’s been gone for fifty years) that trigger my memories. There are still other people who have similar memories of her and the times we had together. Memories of my grandmother will not disappear altogether when I die, for others will have some, too.
Walk through any cemetery and look at the inscriptions on the headstones. At some point after they were erected, there were people who remembered the deceased. After a time those people, too, will have passed away, and the headstone captions will have no personal meaning for anyone. No one will have any memory of the person who lies beneath it.
At my age, I know it won’t be long before I am one of those, and the memories that other people have of me will eventually be lost, as well. Few of us will have monuments erected to us. I don’t mind that. The accumulated memories of me will gradually fade with the passing of years and the passing of those who still know who I am.
But that little snapshot of Shirley could remain, even if the single memory of that moment that lurks in my mind is soon deleted like its digital representation in my computer. Perhaps it’s in somebody’s old photo album. My family had been browsing through the photo albums of my sister, who recently died, and we struggled to identify many of the people shown in the albums. We know that those people existed, but there’s no memory of them left.
Collective memories will fade. DNA counts for something in the history of the human race. I guess it’s a kind of memory we carry in our cells of people who lived before us.
But I can’t help but want that little photograph to somehow endure beyond me.