By Ken Lass
There is an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, which is titled “The Inner Light.” The starship Enterprise encounters a high-tech time capsule floating randomly through space. As it approaches the ship, it scans Captain Picard and shoots him with a laser. The strike causes him to have a vision of a distant planet, destroyed thousands of years ago by a collision with a meteor. In the vision, Picard meets the people of the lost world and learns about their culture. The inhabitants explain they created the time capsule so that history would record their existence. The moral of the story (and there usually is one) is that no one really ceases to exist until nobody remembers them anymore.
I thought about that episode recently when Sharon hauled out a huge stack of old family photographs. They had been gathering dust somewhere in the deep recesses of the house for years. Sharon figured it was time to determine their permanent fate. Either organize and keep them, give them away, or dispose of them.
Interestingly, the further you dug into the stack, the further back in time you seemed to travel. It began with baby photos of my brothers and me. Then there were photos of my parents at their wedding. Then there were photos of my grandparents getting married. So far, so good.
Then it got weird. We started finding pictures of huge family gatherings circa 1900. The men were all wearing buttoned-up vests with dark coats over them, bow ties, hair parted down the middle, and bushy mustaches. The women wore roomy dark blouses with black turtlenecks attached, belted around the waist, flowing dresses with no trace of skin of any kind showing, and hair pulled tightly back. In the front row was a bevy of children decked out in knickers with large bows protruding from their necklines. Nobody was smiling. Apparently, it was not fashionable to smile in a photo in those days.
The photos were embossed on a black cardboard frame. There were a few rips and chunks missing from the edges. I quickly flipped them around, hoping to find some sort of identification or context on the back.
Nothing. Not a thing. Just a picture of a group of people that were strangers to me. I only have an educated guess as to whom they might be. I suspect they are the extended family of my grandparents when they were children. But I have no way of knowing that with any certainty. Anybody in my family tree who might be able to identify them has passed away, including my mom and dad. They are just images without a story. As such, sadly, they mean nothing to me nor to anyone I know.
I suppose I could invest the time and effort in one of those apps that help you trace your genealogy, but quite honestly, I lack the motivation to do so. I’m really not all that curious about my ancient heritage. I may even be a little scared of finding out my roots. What if I descended from some sort of evil cult group? Or worse yet, from Chicago Bear fans?
The Thanksgiving and Christmas seasons are a time to reunite with family, to catch up on each other’s lives, and, inevitably, to share memories of those who have passed on. We retell our favorite stories about them, stories that will make us laugh and maybe even cry. In a sweet sort of way, they’re not really gone. They live on in our hearts and minds, just as clearly as if they were standing in front of us. But the passage of time is relentless, and the arrival of each new generation pushes the memories of those gone before a little further into irrelevance, until, eventually, they are just……strangers in a photo.
So I stare down at these old pictures spread out on my desk. What to do with them? Throw them away? My grown children are even less interested in these photos than I am. No point in handing them down. Yet I can’t shake this feeling that, in some strange spiritual or metaphysical way, the folks in those images will continue to have some sort of legacy, some sort of life story, some sort of relevance, as long as I, or anyone for that matter, hangs on to these photos. That once they hit the trash, to be ground up and buried into the earth, any trace or acknowledgement of their existence is ground up and buried with them.
Then again, I am also quite sure that if I store them somewhere in the house, they will languish there, forgotten, for years to come, after which we will dig them out one distant day and be faced with the same decision. What to do? What would Captain Picard do?
As I write this, my attention is drawn to a picture that sits atop my desk. It’s a family photo taken at Easter. It’s Sharon and me, our son and daughter, their spouses, and their children. It’s one of my favorites. I’ve written our names on the back, but who knows if my family name will survive long term? I find myself wondering if, a hundred years from now, my great-great-great grandson will be sitting by a desk, looking at that picture, with no clue who we are, and caring even less.
I wonder if he’ll throw it away.
(Ken Lass is a retired Birmingham television news and sports anchor and a Trussville resident.)