My sister visited us from Sun City Grand recently. She brought a box of family photos with her, so we spent several hours one afternoon pawing through the decades and layers of memories that they represented. We puzzled over several severely faded, stern-looking photos from the early 1900s. I’m not surprised that no one smiled in photos taken before the 1920s. I always thought that harsh living conditions in the early years prevented lips from curving upwards at the corners. It might have been a case that harsh living caused harsh looking.
Bad teeth might have been another reason for dour photographic expressions. Early barbers were also dentists. I’ve heard that’s why the traditional barber pole featured red and white colors. The white represented bandages and the red reflected bloodletting and other medical procedures that early dentists performed. Most folks didn’t go to the few “dentists” available back then. I ask you, who’d want to visit a practitioner whose main healthcare tool was a pair of pliers?
Smiling for the camera was even discouraged by photographers who took their artistic cues from portrait painters. Showing teeth was considered inappropriate for portraiture. Besides, according to some experts, smiling was associated with madness, lewdness, loudness and drunkenness among other forms of less than flattering behavior. All this makes me glad I didn’t have my photo taken in the late 1800s; one such photo would have destroyed the single shred of dignity to which I cling today.
But getting back to our box of family photos, my own black and white childhood gallery showed me slightly out of focus standing in front of cars, houses and front-yard landscaping. I don’t think I came into focus and into full color until the late 1960s about the same time everyone else did.
Thanks to my sister, our living room floor was strewn with dozens of photos of parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins that recent afternoon. Seeing each picture seemed like lifting the secret veil in a séance since most of the subjects have passed away. It didn’t seem fair. Each personality so richly animated in its day was now reduced to a flat rectangle of shiny paper. How could a full life be deflated to only one dimension?
Aside from discussions of a spiritual hereafter, my wife and I have pondered that once we depart this life, we will live on only in the memories of family and close friends. Once those memories fade, we will dim into obscurity as have centuries of souls who have gone before us. That’s how life works. And how life ceases to be.
I don’t think I’m bothered by fading away. If I were a scholar with the cranial capacity to explore it, I might find some reason to fear being forgotten. On the bright side, obscurity offers some comforts. I won’t have any more contentious political arguments with anyone. In fact, no one will have reason or opportunity to disagree with anything I said or wrote in this life. No one will knock on my door wanting to promote religion, driveway paving services, magazine subscriptions or Fuller Brush products. I won’t have to worry about getting enough sleep or taking my vitamins every day. The cost of existing would be nil even as the value of living would have been priceless.
Writer and neuroscientist David Eagleman has said that one’s final death occurs when one’s name is spoken for the last time. This man is good! He’s expressed in one sentence what I took a full column to say.
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