My half birthday is September 28th. March 28th plus six months. Soon after school started, I am not seven or eight but eight, and a half. Christmas is December 25th and if my half-brother and I didn’t share the same birthday, and six months later, the same half birthday, I wonder if I would have ever known another date growing up. In September, my mother would remind me of my father’s birthday. In November, it was my father’s turn.
Eventually I knew my father had been born on September 27 and my mother November 9th. November 13th was the next date I knew. November 13, 1984, the day my father floated away. I then learned that August 24th was their wedding anniversary.
August 10th is now the day my mother died, those are my days now, along with my children’s birthday. Five birthdays, two deathdays. Not days to celebrate so much, but days that sneak up on me and force me to remember.
When my father died, I remember it being one day later. Then one week, a month, two months, three. I remember it being a year, two years, five. These years now, I almost forget, but mid-November is a flurry of days. My mother and my daughter’s birthday and my father’s deathday, November 9, 10, 13.
A few years ago, I started to think about the year my father died, 1984 and realized my mother was 51 at the time, she seemed so old when it happened and, of course, she really wasn’t. He was 62 and in great health, thinking about selling his company. 51, 62, I was 19.
It’s been 28 years this year, my father would turn 90 this fall if he were still alive, my mother 79.
As I look back, the next generation is sneaking up on me as my son is now 13, and almost six feet tall. Slowly I realize how little time I actually had with my father, between boarding school and summer jobs, his travel and my college, it’s not just the loss at the young age that lingers, it’s the missing from the years before. In some ways, that’s why the uncovering has been so hard, and so interesting for me, separating family lore from fact, finding dates and pictures of the past, putting together the life of a man I really didn’t know and doing it when many of those who did are gone as well.
A friend wrote that it must be hard to go through the letters and the pictures alone, but it’s more than me in the room at night as I pile through the boxes. I find old snap shots of people I know and some I don’t. But many of them speak to me, some make me smile.
A picture of my Grandmother Boyce may well be my favorite so far. Elsie Jane Boyce, the first woman to go to college on her side of the family. This photo is from the late 1930s, when she was in her forties.
By the time I knew her, decades later, she was frail and in ill health despite living into her 90s. She never was strong but she was loving and interested in me, and followed my world closely from Ann Arbor.
I had never seen a picture like this, where she is full of life and smiling in a make-shift studio made by my father. He set it up and took a bunch of pictures when he was in high school in Lawrence, Kansas; my grandfather a professor at the University there.
My grandmother had been married twenty plus years then. My grandfather had fought in World War I and returned home safely. My father was her only son.
Looking at this picture, there was so much ahead she didn’t see. My father serving in World War II, aboard a ship at Okinawa and Iwo Jima. My father’s first marriage and his first two sons. My mother and me.
More than forty years later, after this picture was taken, my grandparents sat alone in Ann Arbor, saying good-bye to their son from a distance, unable to travel to Boston for the funeral. My step-brother flew to them, carrying a cassette tape of the service for them to listen to.
As I see these pictures, flipping the ones over that have the dates stamped or written on the back, you realize that pictures are time, flash-frozen on paper. We often look back at them and think not of that moment, but of what the person in the shot has ahead of them, how they aged, what they saw, what came next.
All the subject knows what is behind them, what they’ve lived through and then they see the camera, maybe a flash. Their world is frozen. The film develops, the moment captured. The subject pauses and leaves the room, to go live their life. But those holding the picture in our hands, months, years, decades ahead, we don’t have to live the life because we already know how the story ends.