It was a beautiful fall afternoon; the air smelled like brown leaves, merging into the ground. ("It's fall-like weather," my husband quipped. "It IS fall," I replied.) After a late lunch with my mother-in-law and a short nap, I drove out to the nursing home, where my mother was already visiting. My dad was up in his wheelchair, and looking pretty happy. He was wearing his Mickey Mouse sweatshirt (he's a big fan of Mickey Mouse -- they are almost the same age). He had had a hamburger for lunch.
We chatted for awhile, sang a couple of songs, talked about how much fun it would be to watch musicals on the the TV/Video player in his room. I noticed an old photograph sitting on the nightstand. It was sitting inside another photograph; a childhood friend of his had come by, and brought along this old picture.
"Your dad's in this picture," my mom said. I picked it up and looked at it carefully. The background looked vaguely familiar, as did my dad's young face. He was on the left, a tall young man in the center, and another young man with a broad smile on the right. "Is this near Augustana Church?" I asked. (That was the church where my dad grew up; we attended as well until I was about 6 years old.)
It was Augustana Church; the tall young man in the middle was a very young associate pastor at the time. The three men looked self-assured and worldly, standing all together on the sidewalk. It was probably after the Sunday morning church service.
"Was this before you got married?" I asked my mom.
"It was before we knew each other," she replied.
I turned to my dad. "You were pretty good-looking then," I said, admiring him. He took the picture in his hand and smiled at it a little.
"Where's that picture of me with my army friends?" he asked. "We were all so debonair." (I loved the word debonair, but would not have associated it with the army.)
I'm fascinated by these old black-and-white photographs, messengers from a past inaccessible to me. I'm fascinated by pictures I find of my mom, about 5 years old, with a ribbon around her hair, or my dad, wearing a white jacket at his confirmation. I even have an old snap-shot of myself that I keep in a journal. It's just a little square picture, taken when I was very little, and visiting my grandparents' farm. There's a haystack, and a ladder there, and I'm climbing the ladder up the haystack. I'm looking down as I climb, very determined to keep going.
I do not remember ever doing that. I don't remember ever being that fearless.
Instead, I remember how it took me several years to learn to ride a bicycle, because I was so afraid of falling down. I remember feeling uncoordinated when trying to play most sports. I remember subtraction flash cards.
I take out the picture of me, climbing the haystack, from a distant past when I thought I could do anything, if only I just kept climbing. I think of the picture of my debonair father, standing with his friends in their Sunday best, the whole world in front of them.
On Thursday, when I visited, my dad kept bringing up the musical "Fiddler on the Roof." They had been watching it the night before my dad first went to the hospital. He can't seem to get it out of his mind. "Sunrise, sunset, sunrise, sunset, swiftly fly the years," my dad sang.
swiftly fly the years
One season following the other
Laden with happiness and tears.
I hold old photographs from a time inaccessible to me, but it's a time I want to know, to inhabit, to turn around and around until I can walk inside the photographs, until I can climb the ladder and sit at the top of the haystack, triumphant. I want to walk down the street with my dad and his friends, and see their faces as they smiled at the camera, ready to take on the world, ready to take on the future.
O God our help in ages past.....