collecting lives

Long hours in the car.  The week disappeared.  It was Monday; it is Saturday.  The rest of the days were lost in a wrinkle, whisked away to Florida for a sudden family reunion.  Strange how a death can inspire a collection of lives.

He sat on a stool behind me at the piano years ago, after asking me to play “pretty music.”  I played the songs he knew, but he sang them differently than I played them.  That was the way of the pastor at his service, too: he held notes longer than I held them; I had to watch and follow the pastor’s breaths to make it work.  So even though he wasn’t at his service, it was familiar.

We took pictures afterwards: the first time all ten of us had been in one spot in four years, maybe.  Somewhere I read that in order for your smile to look natural in a picture, you have to smile twice as wide as you think you should.  I haven’t seen those pictures yet, so I don’t know if it worked.   One asked why the pictures, grumbling at our need to keep history like that.

But it’s the way we seem always to do it, taking pictures of the extraordinary moments, ignoring the years between them.  So that at the end of a life, most of the pictures aren’t so much of the life.  There is the graduate in a suit, but not the boy on the average day he went to school.  The man dressed up for some ceremony or other, but not in the work clothes he wore nearly every day of his life.  The softball team arrayed in rows and grinning, but not on the field with dirty knees and scowls of concentration. A snapshot celebrating fifty years of marriage, but none of most of the days which made those years.

But we remember the between-things.  The dirt under his fingernails, the snaps of his plaid shirts, the blue rubber ball he used to throw for the little gray dog, the velour curtains of his conversion van, the hours pouring over maps from AAA, the cassettes of old tunes.  Things left over from the days when it wasn’t strange for all ten of us to be in one place.

And so we’re scattered again, and I’m trying to fit Tuesday-through-Friday into one Saturday, doing it poorly, thinking of a thousand things besides the paper I’m supposed to write, trying to make all the bits of thoughts into something for you to take away.  The ways we celebrate life all along the way: the boy who went home from the hospital last week, and the man who went home to glory at the beginning of this one, and the baby displaying her new teeth for all the gathered family after the service.

We made her get into the picture with us, the woman who has her own room for the first time in sixty years, who wore his wedding ring on a chain around her neck, and there were eleven in the picture, and though I was trying to smile wider than ordinarily, it was real smile.  Not just for that extraordinary moment, but for all the between-things that made it.  Later, the picture will stand in for walks through a dark pasture, evenings telling stories in a lamp-lit living room, ham and potatoes eaten at a card table with our names written on plastic cups.

I’ll look at it and smile again.

3 thoughts on “collecting lives

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