The other night I intended to make a second batch of cherry walnut
bread, but the butter wasn't soft enough yet. I wrapped a few presents, but then I turned in another direction: the past.
My family -- father, siblings and their families, and our kids -- are gathering this weekend to celebrate Christmas, and knowing how much Dad likes to look at family photographs, I decided to find pictures of Christmases past.
This is what I wish I could say, "I went to the shelf with all the photo albums, each one perfectly organized according to theme or chronology, and voila, how easy it was to find just what I was looking for." Instead, "organizing the family photos" remains on the retirement list and probably will for a LONG time. Instead, I opened a cupboard where there are small bins of loose photos arranged in no order, a true mishmash of time and place and people and events.
And then I was sucked into a path called Memory Lane. Pictures from my growing up years, including the posed ones sent with Christmas cards. Pictures of our kids opening presents and visiting Santa. Sometimes I had to pause to make sure the picture was actually of our daughter Kate and not granddaughter Maren, for they look so much alike. Pictures taken Christmas Day at my parents' home--the annual grandchildren in front of the tree photo, chronicling their growth and change in hairstyles and clothes, too.
The last family photograph taken before my Mother died. We knew it would be her last Christmas and marveled that she was still with us, but there she was wearing her red blazer and Christmas shoes and holding her first great-grandchild. We were smiling, but we all knew what was coming.
As I flipped through hundreds of photos, memories flooded my head and heart. Not all pleasant, I noted. Sometimes I recalled a conversation, a sadness, a regret, not apparent in the picture itself. The picture was a trigger, and how easy it would have been to sink into the past and remove me from the present moment.
Carolyn G. Heilbrun in her book The Last Gift of Time, Life Beyond Sixty has this to say about the return of what she calls "inconsequential memories" or memories that have not been invited. "That temptation is to recall grudges, to dwell on ancient wrongs and miseries and betrayals, to allow these memories, if they are not properly controlled, to dominate thought and therefore life."
As someone writing her spiritual memoir, I sit with memories often. I probe for the details, willing myself back into a certain time and place. Occasionally, I discover a rawness, an unresolved hurt, and I know before I can write about it in my book, I need to do some work. I need to let go of the hurt and find the growth, the wisdom, the deeper perspective. I am not suggesting we become Pollyannas about our lives. Rather, that memory, especially of what we might wish were different, make us more present in love and compassion toward ourselves and each other.
Heilbrun says getting stuck in memories can cause us "to forget to look at what is in front of us, at the new ideas and pleasures we might, if firmly in the present, encounter and enjoy."
I gathered the stack of Christmas pictures, Christmas memories and placed them in a large crystal bowl on the living room coffee table. I imagine loved ones looking at them and I hope the visions of those previous times brings us closer together.