When you're ninety, you deserve a Christmas present or two, even if no one has a clue what to get you--that's what I was thinking. So I put together a little pictoral review of my mother's Iowa family yesterday--which is to say us. It's a reasonably modest selections of shots of our--which is to say her--brand new grandson, in her case great-grandson, born in September. We're going for a holiday visit today.
But we have--as she does--other grandchildren who, sometimes reluctantly, are subject to their grandpa's shutterbugging, so I threw in a number of those too. Plus a couple of our daughter and son-in-law, and our son and his girlfriend, and even a shot or two of my wife's father, who's also 90, smiling proudly, his lap full of said kids.
But there is more to the story of our family's 2009 than new life. We lost a mom, and grandma, and a great-grandma. It didn't seem right to put together a couple dozen pics and not slip one in of the woman who, once upon a time long ago, gave birth to my wife. She left us in early May, and any kind of photographic retrospective needs to include her image, I thought.
So I put one in. One.
There's something about that proportion that's troubling--25 pics of kids and kin, and one of the woman who's no longer with us.
The idea of a little picture book came to me because very little brings my mother more joy than looking at pictures of her own dear ones who live a day's travel away. But I figure those pictures should tell a story, and the story of her Iowa kids in 2009 includes death, a subject she likely thinks about even more than we do. I told myself that maybe she'd find it reassuring to see her own Iowa counterpart--the other great-grandma--included in a 2009 album; maybe she'd find it comforting to know that all that joy doesn't mean that we've forgotten.
Maybe I'm wrong.
There are those who believe, like Whitman, that only death gives rise to song. We make beautiful music only because we know very well that there will come a day when we can no longer sing. We make love because we know all too well that someday we won't. That, it seems to me, is what "Out of Cradle Endlessly Rocking" is all about, the soaringly sad poetic tribute to death.
What I'm thinking this morning, just six hours into a brand new year and brand new decade is that I did the right thing by putting my mother-in-law's picture in that Christmas present scrapbook. Even though she herself wished for death for a long time and even though we know she's now, finally, eternally home, there's still something about her hurtful absence that makes those wonderful baby pics even more beautiful. Death makes life more precious.
Or so it seems to me on this New Year's Day.