It could be just about anyone, but it's not--it's someone, a very real family; and what I know about them--they're not relatives--makes this early family portrait monstrously more telling. In a way, it breaks my heart.
There are four children, two boys and a pair of twins. The oldest, the one in the sailor suit, will be smart and thoughtful. It's probably somewhere in the early 20s here. He will never marry. He will fall in love, deeply. He and his girlfriend will have what I know will be a wonderful, loving relationship. But they will never marry.
There will be almost a dozen other children born to this young Dutch family, so many that Mom, here holding one of the twins, will, like her oldest boy, die young. That one, the one at her side, will come to resent his father deeply for what he will believe is going to eventually kill his beloved mother, her incessant child-bearing. The father, a great bush of hair over his forehead, will be a Christian school teacher, a headmaster, a man I think of as a strict, quintessential Calvinist, a man who probably won't smile as much as he should have smiled by the time his life is spent. They won't be good friends, this oldest boy and his stern father. They will fight. That happens sometimes.
The younger boy moored at his father's knee will suffer greatly, but he will live to a ripe old age. Both he and his older brother will join the Dutch Resistance as young men and carry out very dangerous clandestine work against the Nazis, work that includes almost every kind of underground activity. I don't think either of them will ever kill a German, but between the two of them they may well be responsible for death.
They will both be heroes, but only the younger one will live. Both will suffer greatly. And, in the summer of 1945, after the Liberation, the younger brother will claim some fame for the Resistance work he accomplished. He will speak about that for years to come--to school children, for instance. But what few will ever know is that his older brother, who won't come back from a German concentration camp, will have had to cut his brother out from much of the Resistance activity they were in mutually, because that little boy in the cap couldn't keep his mouth shut and therefore became a liability. These two boys will not be good friends when the oldest dies.
But when the big brother doesn't come back, few will remember that the boy in the hat, the one clinging to his father's leg, was once shunned by the others--by his friends--because his silence could not be trusted.
But then that story will come back and haunt the boy in the hat years and years later, after his reputation as a freedom fighter is sturdily established. He will become very angry when a story is told that offers a different view, one long before held only in silence.
It's probably 1925 or so in the picture. This young Dutch couple--Frisian actually--has four darling children. They sit together in a garden somewhere in Friesland, sit for a picture, what would be today, a Christmas card maybe. They could be any other family. They could be ours.
And yet I know that all of that is ahead of them.
A picture with a thousand words, as most all of ours are.
The father's own wider family will have a reunion soon, hundreds of them coming together from places around the world; and I think it a wonderful blessing of life itself--don't you?-- that those hundreds of people won't know any of that, nothing at all. They'll renew acquaintances, meet new family, eat wonderful food, sing songs maybe, tell stories, remember good times and bad. But this particular ancestral family's story will be only a footnote--
"Oom Leen's oldest children were in the Resistance, you know--and one of them died in Dachau."
"Is that right?"
"Yes--it was very sad."
"It was a horrible time--the war."
"It must have been."
"Pass the dessert, Wim. I really shouldn't have another."
Yesterday, an old friend of mine sent me a little personal essay in which he explained that he was suffering with the first fruits of Alzheimers.
"Sometimes even going for breakfast in our community dining room is a challenge these days," he wrote, "because I forget. I might hear 'scrambled eggs' yet cannot remember what that is."
If I let myself, I could have cried.
And yet, when I look at this picture and see this family in the crystal ball that I own, I can't help but think how wonderful it is, in a way, that no one on this earth remembers everything.
Sometimes it's a blessing to forget, a blessing not to know.
This world is, after all, a vale of tears.
But I swear, that it is, doesn't mean there isn't a time for Christmas cards or one more dessert.