We were given a photograph at Thanksgiving — a restored photo of my husband’s great-grandmother. It was a picture of her as a young girl, maybe about 8, with blonde hair parted and pinned and with full, healthy cheeks. Grant told me what he remembered of her: a woman in her 80s, living with two of her daughters, losing herself to Alzheimer’s. I stared at her childhood photograph with a strange sadness, looking into her little-girl eyes and knowing her end. How odd to look at a child and see the future she knows nothing about!
* * *
Two days after Thanksgiving, we stopped by a baby shower for Grant’s sister’s childhood best friend. I had some acquaintance with her years ago, when Grant and I were dating. Seeing her again, now on the cusp of motherhood, was like skipping a bunch of chapters in a book and rejoining the story somewhere in the middle. Many other people were there too — faces from the past, some whose names my mind could not recover, some I knew I knew but couldn’t remember how.
We stood and talked, reacquainted ourselves, and put the pieces back together. How strange it is when your story intersects again with others from the past — stories that have continued on as surely as yours all these years, but the reconnection jolts you like waking up from a dream.
We sat down and snacked on shower food: our kids and us, Grant’s parents and grandparents. Four generations gathered around the table — a moment that never would have been possible without a pink-cheeked, blonde-headed little girl whose mind would fail her in the end.
* * *
We visited Grant’s great-aunt Margaret in the nursing home. She calls the little girl in the photograph Mother. She is one of the daughters who cared for her in her failing years. Margaret never married or had children, but together with her sister Roxy, she made a home that mothered many. Their nieces and nephews, Grant and his sisters, many of their cousins, and eventually their own mother found love and welcome there.
My kids crawled up in Margaret’s lap. She couldn’t hear much of what they said, but she sang them rhymes and made them laugh. They told stories and tried their best to understand each other. She called them “my girl” and “my boy,” and they exchanged kisses and hugs before we left.
Margaret may not have a line of descendants, but as much as anyone in this family, she has a legacy.
* * *
As my daughter and I made our way there last week, our path was obstructed over and over again by fallen trees. We veered farther up the hill, or farther down, when briar patches or dense groups of saplings barred the way. Our trail was a constant course correction. Then I thought I spotted the doorway to our clubhouse. No, this doesn’t look right, I thought. That little gully back there looked like the troll house. Wait, maybe this one is it. I looked over my shoulder toward the house. I don’t think it was this far. So many fallen trees!
At last we came to a place that seemed familiar. The moss was different now — more like shag carpet instead of the dense covering I remembered. The old trees that had enclosed the clubhouse and divided the rooms were all but gone, replaced by scraggly headed young ones. I tried to paint a picture of its former glory for Corinne, though I wasn’t entirely sure we were even in the right spot. She listened to my fumbling descriptions and said, “That’s cool.” I thought that was generous on her part.
We wound our way back down the hill until we came to a new trail — the one my dad blazed a few years ago. And it led us home.
* * *
The landscape of my life has changed. So many have fallen. Decades of the details of living have been lost so that all we remember is the end. But even as the fallen ones fade away, they break down and fill in and build up the soil in which we stand. They give us a place to put down roots.
And one day we too will lie in these hills, making a fertile place for future generations and beckoning them ever toward the green cool of the forest, where their stories will find their place in ours, and ours will live on.