Michelle Martin

Postcards from the past

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

As the clear, warm weather of early October gave way to bluster and gloom, months into a pandemic that has meant day after day and evening after evening at home, we found a new old way to amuse ourselves: looking at old family pictures.

Maybe my husband was inspired by finding a portrait of an uncle he never met on top of our china cabinet while putting out Halloween decorations, maybe a death in the family made us all a little more reflective.

Whatever the case, when my husband pulled out some of the albums created by his parents, our daughters paged through them eagerly.

They weren’t very interested in the oldest photos, the ones featuring people they didn’t know and maybe never heard of, at least not beyond figuring out relationships. “So he was my great-great-great-grandfather?”

We didn’t get out our own albums and photos, the ones where the kids see themselves in almost every image.

What they were most interested in were pictures of people they know from decades earlier: parents and aunts and uncles in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s.

“Look at the hair!” “Look at the glasses!”

I think we all agree that their grandparents, dressed up for the camera in their 1950s suits and dresses, were far more photogenic.

Questionable fashion choices aside, they traced family resemblances. Something about the shape of their great-uncle’s face reminds them of their cousin, and my daughter really does look like her grandmother.

As the albums moved along, they cheered the first appearances of first Caroline, and then Frank and finally Teresa. They looked at the way they interacted as young children, caught by the snap of their grandfather’s camera when they weren’t looking. The pictures that he took to remember big events didn’t draw as much interest — “This is a picture of … the snow?” Teresa asked, holding a photo that shows a path shoveled through at least two feet of snow on the sidewalk, I think from the New Year’s storm of 1999.

They did, however, love the pictures of the dogs we used to have.

It might be an unusual Halloween this year, but this looking back, seeking connection with those who have gone before, is what this whole season is all about. Halloween is the eve of the solemnity of All Saints, which leads into the commemoration of All Souls. Connections to the past — to family history — are similarly celebrated in the Día de los Muertos.

The Celtic people who celebrated Samhain, thought to be the precursor to Halloween with its ghosts and goblins and jack-o’-lanterns, thought this time of the year, with days getting shorter and the nights getting longer, signaled a period where the curtain between the natural and supernatural worlds thinned, when it became easier to communicate with those who had died.

Maybe it’s not anything spooky. Maybe it’s just that as the earth prepares for a time of dormancy and then renewal, we spend more time indoors, with those we love, and share stories of those who came before.




  • family life