A Gift from the Memory Sea: A Moment Captured in Another Family’s Photo Album
Our neighbors the Martins lived less than a quarter mile away.
Sometimes my brother and I rode our bikes down their long lane, hoping to play with the Martin children:
Carol, Elaine, Danny and Davy.
After I left home for college, I lost touch with the Martins.
Carol’s younger sister Elaine came back into my life after my memoir Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World was published.
Elaine recently joined the Facebook group that Carol Bodensteiner and I set up called I Grew Up Country.
Among Elaine’s first contributions was the above picture of her sister Carol and me, taken perhaps in 1952, when we were about four years old.
I never saw this picture until Elaine posted it.
Finding a Martin photo is like unwrapping a gift from another family’s sea of memory.
Gazing intently, I experienced a shiver of sadness and recognition.
In that sea of memory swim two little girls, one who now writes these words and one who no longer lives.
Carol Martin Hottenstein died in 2008 at age sixty.
Nothing in those dark shiny eyes suggests that she will not make it to the biblical three score and ten years.
I feel an obligation, looking at a photo like this one, to live deeply and fully, not only for myself but for Carol and Vicky and the other playmates whose lives were shorter than mine.
Looking at my own face in the photo, I see a particular expression of curiosity and wonder that I know well in two other little faces.
No photo in the Hershey family album ever socked me as hard with recognition as did the Martin photo.
Arms open, eyes wide, we human beings float together on a raft in a sea of memory,
an ocean of time before us and behind us.
Has one photo ever socked you with sadness, recognition, joy, wonder? Have you ever seen yourself in some other family’s photo album?
A poem by Patrick Friesen comes to mind:
it goes away
a garden behind a house
smelling the mint
a bench in a clearing
feeling the sun
it goes away.
a long-legged daughter on the grass
watching her dance
a son swaying in the willow
watching him laugh
it goes away.
a hand tracing your face
tasting its salt
a body asleep beside you
feeling her breath
it goes away.
a black dog at your door
smelling its heat
a white horse in your dream
listening to the hooves
it goes away.
Elfrieda, I love this poem, and I had not read it until you shared it. Reminds me of Jane Kenyon in “Otherwise” and “Let Evening Come.” A sense of limits and grace pervades these images. And what it makes me want is the moment here in front of me. Thank you! A gift from YOUR sea of memory.
Yes, I have several photos that evoke recognition and sadness, but the one that came to mind first was that of Jane Martin, a dear high school friend. I kept her photo and handwritten address until they became digital in this post: http://plainandfancygirl.com/2014/06/25/remembrance-of-things-past-she-kept-his-sweater/
When she died of cancer in her twenties, she had all the ingredients for a long, happy life: new husband, promising position at the Library of Congress, loving family. But it was not meant to be.
The Patrick Friesen poem is touching and true – “It goes away,” all the more reason to value it while it is tangible.
Your photos are choice: In the first one, Carol looks tentative, but you look as though you are ready to step right out of the picture into life. And who can resist the charm of little people, especially if they’re grand-children. Well done, Shirley!
Thanks for sharing the post about your friend Jane. I reread it with new eyes. I’ll soon (next year) be attending my 50th high school reunion. There will be a table reserved for the ones who are no longer with us. No one knows when one’s picture joins that group.
I guess the best response is gratitude for however many years we already have and a blessing on all those who remain when we’re gone. A deep breath in: Thank you, God.
I can see why this photo smacked you. I always feel that way about photos of me or my family I have never seen before that someone else has kept. How precious to find this!!
You understand, Melodie. I’m very familiar with almost all the pictures my mother took. So I think I recognize myself. This one, however, especially since it includes Carol, shows me a child I know less well. Pretty amazing how much one photo can contain.
Lovely post, Shirley. I can understand the pull–and the emotion–of this photo.
I can’t think of a particular photo that has had the effect you describe, but I’m sure there have been.
Sometimes when I see photos of my mom when she was young and so beautiful, it really affects me. Right now I’m enjoying photos from my younger daughter’s wedding. Some friends and relatives have posted some on FB that give me a glimpse of things I could not see while experiencing the moments.
Yes, Merril, that angle of vision thing is so fascinating. One remembers certain images and becomes familiar with one’s own photos. Yet none of us ever sees 360 degrees around us. And some parts of every event cannot be experienced in one place.
Time is always poignant when we see pictures of those we love at different stages of life. The awareness you add here is that place can have the same effect. Thanks!
Even when you were small, there is no doubt that you are in the photo. It’s quite amazing how so many of your facial features have stayed the same.
I feel the sadness whenever I look through family photos.
What an interesting way to describe that expression, Joan. I gravitated toward the camera from a young age, sometimes to the chagrin of others.
I hope you have at least one photo of your own curiosity and joy to help counter that feeling of loss. Sometimes old photos seem tragic even when the faces are smiling. The silver lining? You’ve written your story! Hurrah for you!
A heart-tugging post, Shirley. There was a girl who lived across the road from where I grew up – she was the only one in our neighborhood who was just my age – and she died in a car accident when she was four. She lives large in my mind as the person who would have been my closest friend. Until I went to high school, I never had such a close friend other than my sisters. I have a photo of us that I’ll post at “I Grew Up Country.”
Merril’s comment also reminds me of a picture of my mother when she was pregnant with me. The only picture of her pregnant that I know to exist. She was unaware the picture was being taken and she looks very happy.
Carol, I’m so glad we have a place to post your photo of yourself and your neighbor friend. That’s one thing blogs don’t allow and that I’ve wished for from time to time.
Sorry for your loss. Age four. Wow. That is meeting death at an early age. I imagine that loss has never gone away.
Shirley — The photo of you and Carol is a gem! Your expression of wide-eyed wonder hasn’t changed a bit. Your words: “… to live deeply and fully…” are the ones that stirred my heart this morning.
I’ve never seen myself in another family’s photo album, but there are certain photographs that have struck me to the core; that have served as reminders that time is passing swiftly and to (as you said), “live deeply and fully.”
Thank you, Laurie. Living deeply and fully is a promise to ourselves, but we can fulfill that promise best when others hold us to it and help us to achieve it.
This community of writers serves that function for me, as I know it does for you. Thanks for the inspiration.
Lovely post, Shirley. In this season when I witness friends losing loved ones well before they have reached the biblical age you mention, I found this post especially touching, and a good reminder to live deeply and richly. Thank you.
Thanks, Melanie. Always good to see your thoughts in this space. So sorry for your friends’ losses.
Thought of you and our lovely time together last year while we were in Portland recently (for a wedding). Hope you’re having a great summer.
Your posting, Shirley, and the responses above remind me of a poem I wrote quite a few years ago about the preservation of childhood memories and living deeply/richly and reflectively in the present. Although the friend I have written about here is younger than I, she has been largely incapacitated by a stroke and is living full-time in a nursing home, unable to speak. Happy memories. Sad situation.
Playing in the Word Bin
At six, eight, and ten –my yesteryears,
a farmer’s daughter playmate and I
sat in their big-barn wheat bin
wriggling bare toes and fingers
in fragrant golden grain, plump
with summer sun and captured rain.
We dipped arms and legs deep
in the rich contoured-hillside harvest.
The pleasant, shifting pressure
still remains, seeding play
more suitable to one’s sixties.
Today my mind sifts through
the word bin, loving the feel of words,
the heartbeat of rhythms, relishing
the color of connotations –old and new.
Similes, metaphors, sibilant sounds
whoosh through my fingers, standing
my full heart on tip-toe to tell truths
that speak of camaraderie between
my own and yet another’s soul.
The lane between that neighbor’s house
and mine still cuts through fertile fields.
Wow! That last line is so much like the introduction to this post that I felt another shiver, Ruth:
“The lane between that neighbor’s house
and mine still cuts through fertile fields.”
Thank you so much for this poem. What an apt metaphor for both art and life — a grain bin. My father purchased a combine to harvest his own grain and that of his neighbors. I remember running my hand through the ocean of wheat.
I bless you and your friend. She lives on in your poem!
Shirley, I experience your post of “sadness and recognition,” along with responses of your readers, as a Psalm, and I feel invited to live and share deeply and fully.
Dave and I recently enjoyed remembering your stop in Oakland and in our home, one year ago. One thing you were willing to do, a little before we took you back to the train station, was to listen with me to the tape of my sister’s memorial service at EMC (as it was called then). I was touched by your willingness to share your foggy memories of being in that congregation and of those times and what little you remember of my sister.
I know I love reading your memoir and posts, partly because you remind and show, for me, something of what the person missing in my life…my sister, Vivian’s life pointed towards…a love of living deeply and fully and a way to be ok with the joys and sorrows…and, mostly, a way to make art out of feeling smacked.
Yes, Dolores, Stuart and I thought of you again on the 4th of July this year, especially since we were in Portland and reliving some of the same scenes from our wonderful trip last year. Thank you again for your generous hospitality.
I am honored to carry for you some of the memories of your dear sister. When one has experienced a loss as deep as yours it is an act of courage and love to seek out the people and experiences who can help restore wholeness and meaning.
You, even more than I, are living twice. I salute how deeply and fully your are doing so.
A lovely tribute, Shirley, and also a touching reminder.
From 7th grade through the end our senior year, we lost one student each year: cancer, a car accident, the final stages of polio, another car accident (with parents and sibling dying as well) and a farm accident followed by a suicide.
It hurts to list them even now.
Oh my, Marylin, what a painful list — just to read it makes me sad. How much more must you feel. You and your classmates will carry the spirits of your friends with you throughout life. It’s so hard to fathom mysteries of why such things happen. Instead, we can respond by saying thanks for this day, trying to fill it up to the brim.
Sorry to remind you of these losses. Hope that their recalled presence will inspire acts of memory and compassion. This comment has already done so.
Shirley, such a poignant post and an important reminder of how quickly we walk through this life and often too soon into the next. Like others, I’ve never seen myself in another family’s album. And like Marilyn, from 7th to 12th grade, our class experienced some kind of loss, almost all inexplicable to us each year. Another experience relating to this is my first nephew, born when I was 6, and there are pictures of us together, was murdered at age 40 leaving behind a son too young to understand why someone else was able to choose when his father’s life would end. And then there were my high school classmates lost in Vietnam. You’ve really jogged my photo memory bank. Well done, Shirley!
Thank you, Sherrey, for these memories and kind words. As you say, “how quickly we walk through this life and often too soon into the next.” Once the possible road ahead of us is shorter than the one behind us, we become keenly aware. And we feel the losses of shorter lives in a new way. Hard to explain, but most of us here understand.
What a find! Eyes wide with an openness we lose as adults. Anticipation that the next thing will be good. Very good.
I dreamed of a seven-year-old girl twice since June 4. She appeared the day after the anniversary of my husband’s death after I’d spent that anniversary taking stock of where I am and where I want to go. So she is the part of me born at his death. I’m trying to articulate who she is and will write about her this week. (You give me courage to try that.) I know, and she insists in the dream, that I must trust her and follow her. She has the fire of my creative life. I feel her resonance with your inner girl child who fills you with wonder and hope and insists you live fully and deeply.
I want to tell you to trust this girl, but it’s not my place to give you advice. But I can’t help it. Trust her!
You have permission to give me advice anytime you feel called to do so, Elaine. 🙂 And you give me a new explanation for why the picture “socked me” so hard. It was the return of my little girl self during my own period of waiting for the fire of my own creative life to guide me to the next step. I do trust her. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen her so openly yearning than in this picture.
Glad to know you have your own little girl spirit guide and that this post awoke your courage to write about her. This kind of response is what keeps me blogging after all these years.
I correct myself. Not the courage to write about the young dream girl, because I’m already doing that. You’ve given me the courage to actually post a piece about her as a blog and reveal my vulnerable hopeful young feminine self.
I don’t know Elaine Mansfield, but I just read her post and my heart beats faster in response. As a spiritual director, I value dreams. Elaine writes:
“I know, and she insists in the dream, that I must trust her and follow her. She has the fire of my creative life.”
How exciting! I wish Elaine well.
Ruth, you would love Elaine’s book and her blog. Find them both at her website. Elaine’s life intersects with yours on many levels, and she is turning it into words to help others — just as you do! http://elainemansfield.com/
Thank you, Ruth. I’m glad those words resonated with you. I didn’t say in my comment, but it was the seventh anniversary of my husband’s death when I had the first dream. I’ll post a blog about it this week–daring to share a dream which can be so subjective that it’s meaningless to others. But this dream was clear and quite simple with a universal lesson about a new birth that happens when the old life dies. The second dream about the seven year old gave more information about her. She can be trusted.
Dreams have been helpful all my life, but particularly so the last seven years. I’m curious about your work as a spiritual director.
Thanks, Shirley. Isn’t writing fun once you set time aside and actually begin?
Glad to see that you have connected to each other. Elaine, Ruth is also a poet. You can find my review of her book here: http://www.amazon.com/Straw-All-Christmas-Poetry-Collection/dp/0984212299/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1436628196&sr=8-3&keywords=ruth+naylor
What a precious photo, Shirley. Those bright eyes of yours haven’t changed a bit! I have a photo of my 5-year-old self holding the hand of an older girl (around 10) in the neighborhood, Karen Clain that send shivers down my spine. Soon after that photo was taken , she came home from school to find her mother had hanged herself in their basement. So tragic and I can still feel the shock and confusion whenever I see that photo. Those precious moments in time hold so many stories.
Kathleen, what a tragedy for a ten-year-old and all her family, friends, and neighbors. I hope your friend found healing, and I can only imagine how much trauma that photo holds. I wonder if it would still be possible to share the photo with your friend. Just a thought.
And it doesn’t surprise me a bit if your holding hands with the older girl, literally or figuratively, helped her survive that terrible ordeal. You’ve been a healer from an early age.
Thanks, Shirley, for introducing me to Elaine. I checked the publisher website, read the reviews and recognize that this book (Leaning into Love) would be on target for what I have been living and will be facing. I ordered a copy and look forward to reading it. Gratitude is extended to Elaine in advance for writing openly and honestly as is noted in the reviews.
Thank you for letting me know this, Ruth. Your comment makes me happy. The book has a little life of her own now, so I don’t know where it will show up or who will read. That’s what we hope for, isn’t it? I hope Leaning into Love speaks to you.
So happy to know this, Ruth. Thanks for letting us know. Isn’t it great that we can connect as writers online, finding kindred spirits we could not have otherwise known?