The passage you are about to read was not written by me, but by the husband of a wonderful client. This man, Evan Schultz, happens to be a rabbi, and the passage is an excerpt from his Yom Kippur Yizkor sermon, read to hundreds of congregants. Yizkor is a memorial service, and I was touched by how the rabbi so eloquently expressed how we keep the memories of our loved ones alive through photographs.
A Suitcase of Photos
“We took an extra suitcase home from Arizona after Jenny’s mom died. Carolyn was meticulous about a lot of things. Ordering her annual Sierra Club calendar. Doing the weekly Sunday crossword in pencil, not pen. Skimming all of the fat off of her matzah ball soup. But her photos, those she never quite organized into albums.
As we sat around the kitchen table, Jenny and I, her brother and his girlfriend, the four of us sifted through hundreds of old family photographs. Many were still in the old envelopes that you’d get at the Kodak kiosk, the little brown negatives slipping out and onto the floor. What the heck are those, my ten year old son asked, holding them in the air with a curious look. Those are negatives, I responded, only to get an even more bewildered look back from him.
It was incredible to look through all of these old photographs. There were black and whites from the 1940s and 1950s. Images of her mom, a young girl, playing with her cousins on the beaches of Oyster Bay and in the Catskill Mountains. Photographs of Carolyn as a student at Cornell, as a young mom holding baby Jenny in the air, and of course the classic 1980s big hair and shoulder pads.
Looking through those photographs was like dancing through her life. There was so much that she saved. Newer photos of her grandkids that we had sent her on her birthday and Mother’s Day. Photos of her and her husband Ken visiting Jenny during her semester abroad in Scotland. Exterior shots of their family homes in Texas and Pennsylvania.
And that afternoon, after looking through all of those old photographs, we swept them up off the kitchen table and placed them in a large, old blue suitcase. A suitcase full of photographs. Now that we’ve inherited them, we’re going to try and organize them all, digitizing them and putting them into albums for our kids and their kids to look through as they get older.
Our hope of keeping Carolyn’s memory on our lips and in our hearts. Opening up that suitcase full of photographs and memories, sharing the “do you remember whens” and the “I have to tell you this story about my mom, it’s one of my favorites.”
In a sense that’s what we do each year when we gather together in the waning hours of Yom Kippur, for the service of Yizkor. To remember, we open up that large suitcase filled with photographs and memories. We flip through the albums and we smile fondly, holding the metaphorical photos in our hands, sitting around the kitchen table, perhaps with surprise that a particular story will make us well up with tears or burst into laughter.
We returned to Arizona a few weeks later to memorialize Carol. Family drove in from New Mexico and Texas, cousins Zoomed from New York and New Jersey. We opened up that large suitcase of photographs. An old friend of hers recalled how Carolyn taught him exactly how to cook a brisket. A New Yorker teaching a Texan how to properly brown a brisket, that certainly brought a smile to our faces. Carolyn’s niece spoke about how she was like a cactus, fierce and tough on the outside, and so kind and tender within. We must have sat there for over an hour, sifting through that old suitcase. Dancing around decades and eras, opening those old Kodak envelopes, fulfilling our promise to remember.
And then, after the hour was over and everyone started to return home, we zipped up that tattered old suitcase. Swept the photographs once again off the kitchen table, went back to life for a while and back to school shopping for our kids.
It’s easy sometimes, with the busy flow of life, to put the suitcase in the corner and lose sight of it for a little while. Perhaps we open it a little less and less. It feels too hard. Or too sad. Or there’s nobody around to laugh with. Or we forget what stories and photos are in there.
So as we turn now to those words and those melodies, those photographs and memories, we allow ourselves, just for a little while, to be present to it all, the pain and the fondness, the tenderness and the utter joys. We hold the photographs in our hands and as the day wanes and sunlight flutters, the memories surely do not. We take that suitcase with us wherever we go. We promise to always return.”
I returned Jenny’s project to her this week. The contents of the battered blue suitcase are now organized by year and theme and person. The pictures are stored neatly in an archival box to prevent further damage. The images have all been carefully scanned and edited, and the digital library shared with Jenny’s family throughout the country. Now all who loved Carolyn can open the metaphorical suitcase anytime to relive the history and stories of the family.
For fun, I'm signing off with an old photo of myself, circa 1984. Enjoy the memories.
Organized Photos Forever