The photos were lying there on the living room floor when I arrived at the house.
I have to admit that, at first, I felt overwhelmed by the sheer volume of them.
To thumb through the many stacks of family photos–either in their original development sheaths from the photo lab or in one of the many albums compiled decades before I knew any of their subjects–seemed to have the potential for monotony.
After all, there were just so many of them.
My wife Amy’s grandpa, George, was an avid photography buff. And I’m not talking in that digital-point-and-click-coolpix-everybody’s-a-photographer-now kind of way.
George was of the old school, and that’s an understatement. Even up until last year, he was using his old 35 millimeter with the fussy F-stop and aperture settings. Long ago, he’d perfected the focus and depth of field and right there were the photos to prove it.
He’d had that camera for decades and it was as much a part of him as those folks gathered in his living room, rifling through the printed results.
I sat down at the dining room table in his house in Des Moines and took on my own mission. After his children and grandchildren had gone through the photos and picked those that best represented his life of 80+ years, I worked alongside his oldest daughter, my mother-in-law, to put together photo boards for his visitation later that day.
And I learned so much that day about old George. And I learned a heckuva lot about the other George: the young version.
I never knew that guy, but greatly appreciated the version I did get to know.
My first trip to Des Moines to see Amy’s grandparents was almost six years ago. By then, Grandpa had begun a slow decline into the mind-meld of Alzheimer’s Disease. I didn’t notice anything the first time I waltzed on into their lives, but on each subsequent trip we could see a few more layers of memory peeled away and a little less physical stamina from the retired mailman.
On the way home from our recent holiday trip there, a casual conversation with Amy–his first grandchild, who also gave him his first great-grandchild–revealed what was on both of our minds, and probably on the minds of everyone else. We realized the trip we’d just made was likely the last Christmas we would spend with Gramps.
We were so glad we’d made that trip and the few that followed.
As I began adhering those photos to the green plastic boards, I learned far more than I’d ever known about George.
I, of course, knew the obvious items of note. He had a great sense of humor that became more prevalent in the three future generations of his family. A no-frills, no-nonsense kind of guy; ambitious, conservative (but not in the creepy way political Conservatives claim to be), politically conscious, a friend to the Earth, and responsible in all aspects of his life–especially financially.
In addition to all that, he was a great husband, father and grandpa. A real class act.
His type is a rarity in today’s narcissistic, I-want-it-all-and-I-want-it-now culture. In the basement of his house is proof: a deep freeze that kept their food frozen for more than 50 years.
It just goes to show they just don’t make ’em like they used to.
I learned through the photos and stories that day about his military service, stint as a watchmaker, completion of a marathon at age 52, the prize-winning rose gardens, summers at the cabin in Duluth, the story of him bringing the china back home from Japan, a lengthy membership in the Des Moines Scuba Club, his fussbudget ways and his hands-on grandparenting skills.
And to top it all off, he actually built a darkroom in which to develop his own photos.
I found myself even more amazed than before.
His last days were impressive in themselves. He had been able to stay at home with his beloved Edna, herself fighting non-Hodgkins lymphoma, until earlier this year when she had to move him to a nursing home. And there his health began to fail him.
His living will insisted–characteristally–that no heroic medical measures be taken to save his life and after his feeding tube was removed, he hung on for two entire weeks before his body gave up. Yes, years of exercise and healthful living had kept his organs in tip-top shape.
Even his mind, which had been his struggle for years, was quite sharp during the first week off the feeding tube. He joked with his family, smiled and recalled stories from the past.
Alas, he took his last breath a Friday ago.
So as I looked through the photos of his past, I realized the photo boards were a fitting tribute to George.
What are photos, really, but mementos of a filtered reality?
The whole thing makes perfect sense.
Decades before his descent into the filtered reality know as Alzheimer’s, this man–this responsible saver of things–would commit so many of his memories to photo paper. Tangible, reusable, well-preserved memories of a reality he once knew.
Lasting memories that Alzheimer’s can’t erase.