The Dreaded Boxes

When my mother died, she left drawers filled with photograph albums, letters, audio and video tapes, and other items of personal minutiae that my brother and sister and I arbitrarily divided and had shipped from our mother’s Midwestern town to our homes on the west coast. The dubiously optimistic idea was that we would scan the stuff and create an archive that we could share among ourselves and other family members.

We scrounged up boxes, crammed them full and lugged them to the small-town drugstore that served as a UPS pickup point. My brother bestowed upon them the fitting label of “The Dreaded Boxes.” In sibling email threads and pandemic Zoom sessions, someone was certain to ask, “Have you gotten into your dreaded boxes?” Dreaded, not because we might discover some shocking secret hidden in my mother’s aggressively respectable life, but because those boxes would reproach us when we found excuses to avoid the tedium of sorting and digitizing everything.

But the photographs and other items, some originally our grandmother’s, began straggling into the light of present day. Our great-grandfather as a young man, which means the photograph must have been taken before the turn of the 20th century. Our great-grandmother, equally young. My grandmother as a child, along with her sister and two brothers. My mother as a little girl, then a teenager, then a bride, along with her school report cards and a love letter my father wrote before they were married.

My brother and sister and I as toddlers, dressed up and posed as was common in those days against a formal backdrop in a photography studio.

At best, these photographs can tell us where someone was at a given moment, what they were wearing, and who they were with, if anyone. My great-grandfather, my grandmother, my mother are frozen at an often indeterminate time; they are like insects in amber, the details of their anatomy clearly visible but the way they move, how they sound, their habits and behaviors are mysteries that can only be revealed through observation of their living counterparts. Of course, if I listen carefully I can hear my great-grandfather’s rasping voice and I can see my grandmother, who had bad eyesight, fumbling for something in a kitchen drawer. I can see the worried look that so often took up residence on my mother’s face, a visual emblem of a belief that she was fated to suffer, although she also trusted that her endurance would eventually bring rewards, if not in her lifetime, then in an afterlife.

When I was a little boy, this afterlife was a great unknown, like the most distant parts of the woods—or what we called the timber—on our farm. Dense, unexplored, forbidding. The proposition was simple enough, if I was good I’d go to heaven, if I was bad I’d go to hell. The difficulty with heaven was its abstract nature, a place somewhere in the sky where everyone was happy, the weather was always balmy, and I would meet all the ancestors I knew only from their photographs in those albums that ended up sixty-odd years later in the dreaded boxes. Hell, on the other hand, could be extrapolated from those dark, ominous woods; from raging thunderstorms and tornadoes that now and then sent us scurrying to the fruit cellar; from the searing heat of the fire my father started in a large mound of corncobs; from the pain and humiliation of being sent away from the dinner table for some misdeed like kicking my brother or refusing to eat a vegetable. Pain and humiliation that felt eternal.

About the time I started college I stopped believing in any sort of afterlife. This is not to disparage anyone who believes otherwise; the world teems with mysteries that not only invite the investigations of science but speculations that range from the soberly intellectual to the wildest sorts of surmise. I believe that when my heart stops beating and the blood stops flowing through my veins the part of me that constitutes a self, my thoughts and feelings, will cease to exist. Unlike a baseball player who points to the sky after hitting a home run or declares that a deceased parent is watching his exploits with pride, I don’t believe that my parents or others no longer among the living are privy to my thoughts and activities, good or bad, just as I don’t believe there is a vantage point from which I’ll be able to see what my progeny are up to when I’m no longer here.

Still, I want to think that what lingers of my great-grandfather and grandmother and others isn’t just their images arranged in often stiff formality within the borders of a photograph. My grandmother carried me in her arms and sang lullabies and told stories to me and my brother, and I want to believe that her sober gaze in those photographs isn’t all that is left of her. At the risk of wading into the swampy field of metaphysics, I want to believe that the spirit of my ancestors lives within myself, and that when I’m gone this spirit, with my own uncertain contribution, will live within my daughter and my grandchildren and my great-grandchild and all the unborn joined to this thread of ancestry.

Is this belief incompatible with an assurance that there is no afterlife in the sense of a consciousness living on while the body decays? I don’t think so. Somewhere in the bewildering complexity of the DNA in the cells of my daughter and grandchildren and great-grandchild is a microscopic bit of myself, a piece of me, just as my own DNA harbors infinitesimal pieces of my parents, my grandparents, those stiffly posed figures from the albums in the boxes. In that sense, all our lives are eternal.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s