Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Old Photos

Last week was the anniversary of my grandfather's death, so he was on my mind a lot. It's been so many years, but I still miss him. When he died, my mom took a bunch of stuff from his apartment. He didn't have a lot of mementos. He hadn't been sentimental and he hadn't lived one of those lives where he stayed in the same house his whole life and accumulated a collection of items with meaning and history. He'd moved around a lot, not been stable and I'm sure a lot of treasures were lost in moves or divorces. My mom took what she could - a brass lamp, a marble topped table, some antique ceramic crocks he'd picked up at an Amish market, and a handful of photographs. Just a handful.

I saved the photographs. I was scared that in my parents' many moves and the busy confusion of their home that something might happen to them. Among the photos were a few portraits my grandparents had done when they were married. I kept them locked safely in a trunk for years.

Now I have a house, but it's more than a house. I'm creating a home finally and I'm putting a lot of consideration into how I decorate, what items I display. I wanted to hang up and put out meaningful pictures of family members, old and new, so that my daughter will see these people and know them even when many of them are gone. It's my way of keeping memories alive and honoring everyone who came before. It makes me happy looking at the photos.

My dilemma is that my grandparents divorced. They were married for twenty-seven years, had five children, four of whom lived and then my grandfather had an affair with a nineteen year old who got pregnant. He devastated and humiliated my grandmother and I don't think she ever got over her bitterness. That affair and that baby weren't his first. He was unfaithful to my grandmother often over the years and there were many unproven rumors of children with other women. He was a big drinker and my mother has told me stories of violent fights my grandparents had when she was growing up. They didn't have a happy marriage by most accounts.

I loved my grandfather. My mother loved her father enough to name me after him and in spite of his flaws and despite the fact that he wasn't a very good husband, he was a good grandfather. I have a lot of cherished memories of him. I miss him all the time.

His ex-wife, my grandmother, is still alive. She doesn't speak kindly of him ever, understandably. She has remarried a wonderful man who suits her much better and she has found happiness later in life. She so deserves that and I recognize that her husband now is a much better match for her than my grandfather ever was.

My dilemma is with the photos. My grandfather saved them. I know that later in life he admitted to regretting his choices. He was sorry. He loved his two subsequent kids, but he knew he hurt my grandmother and that what he did was terribly wrong. I also know that my grandmother doesn't like to be reminded of her failed marriage and that she doesn't celebrate the years spent with him very much.

Is it wrong to display the photographs of my grandparents' wedding even though it ended in a nasty divorce? Would my grandmother disprove of these pictures in my home? Are the pictures a reminder of bad memories?

I like the photos because they are beautiful. They show people I love when they were young, unruined and full of hope. I like seeing them that way. Both of them were so devastatingly good looking, like movie stars. I know they loved each other madly when they got married and you can see that in the pictures taken on that day. Once they were happy and excited. To me, the pictures are proof that there really were good times and maybe it's best to remember those moments instead. Maybe the pictures also serve as a reminder not to ruin the possibility of happiness in my own marriage.

But maybe displaying the pictures is whitewashing a tragedy, denying destruction. Maybe it would be an insult to my grandmother. I know she'll never visit to see the photos, but still. What would she say if she knew I framed them and put them out on my mantle?

And then there's my mother who loves what I did and loves seeing her parents happy and young and she comes over all the time. What do I tell my daughter when she asks about the people in black and white? Will I tell her the truth one day about how much I hated having divored grandparents and will she be able to understand my loving a man who was so deeply flawed that he could hurt his own family so much?

I don't know, but I can't bring myself to take the pictures down.

19 comments:

Raven said...

Their divorce doesn't discount your love for them both and for seeing them as they were, young and happy. Without that wedding photo and that happy time, they might not be your grandparents, so I don't think that it dishonors them to display your own beginning. It's your home and if it makes you happy, it's ok.

And you will tell you daughter about them, little by little, in stories, and she will understand. More importantly, she will be grateful for the roots you'll give her.

catherine said...

Display the pictures, even though their love ended in such a trainwreck, There was love there at one time and the pics prove it. If you erase every painful memory from your life, the good times will not be as sweet.

Anonymous said...

Why don't you just ask your grandmother? If you're afraid she'll lie that's on her not you.

Gina said...

My maternal grandmother was married three times and I have photos in my home of her with her 1st (my grandfather who died before I was born, though they divorced long before that) and her 2nd husband. She never minded.

ponca said...

I'm actually going to recommend that you not display the photos, but for a different reason. you love these photos, and you love the people in them, but by displaying the photos you can cause some major damage to them. Photos don't last forever; in museums they are kept in special areas, with light filtering glass. If you want to display the photos, get copies made (and keep a digital copy of each one as well) so that you are able to pass them to your children.

As far as displaying the photos in general, there's no reason that you can't display them most of the time, and just put them away when she comes to visit so that you don't cause unintentional pain to your loved one.

ponca said...

I'm actually going to recommend that you not display the photos, but for a different reason. you love these photos, and you love the people in them, but by displaying the photos you can cause some major damage to them. Photos don't last forever; in museums they are kept in special areas, with light filtering glass. If you want to display the photos, get copies made (and keep a digital copy of each one as well) so that you are able to pass them to your children.

As far as displaying the photos in general, there's no reason that you can't display them most of the time, and just put them away when she comes to visit so that you don't cause unintentional pain to your loved one.

Kerry said...

Put 'em on your mantle! Like you say, it's a memory of when things were good, when they were young and idealistic and full of hope. Your daughter will understand how you saw your grandpa. Everybody's flawed. Everybody makes mistakes. Who would we have left in our lives if we only loved those who are perfect?

And these are people you loved. It is good to remember them.

Lis said...

I also want to say display them. I've been divorced since 2004, I'm getting married in October, but we still have pictures up of my first wedding. Not those of me and my ex, but pictures of me and my grandmother (who has since passed) and funnily enough one me, my current fiancé and one of our best friends (who has also passed)... the wedding itself is over, but it was one heck of a party and there are great memories there, regardless of how everything turned out after.

Anonymous said...

Ask your grandmother. If she says "No" then put them back away until she's not around to protest.

Speaking of grandfathers and old pictures, I think you'll enjoy the mini-site I put together (over a decade ago now) about my maternal grandfather Harold Rankin.

Anonymous said...

I have a number of extremely old family photos that I had framed in acid-free mats (and frames and all). They line the walls of my staircase, where they don't get any direct sunlight. I have some *ahem* interesting relations myself, some of who are in those pictures. I think the only ones missing are the pre-Civil War horse thieves who got thrown out of Scotland at gunpoint. Anyway, I like having all of that family history, good and bad, for my kids to see and grow up with.

Green said...

I say you leave them. They're not up to make your grandma unhappy, they're up to make you happy and as an added bonus, they make your mom happy. I think as long as you are honest about their marriage to Baby Lawns when she's old enough to hear about it, it's not white-washing history.

Melanie said...

My father was a horrible husband to my mother, but in his old age he mellowed out and became a different person. I think of him with love, although some people might not understand how I was able to forgive him.

As far as the message you might be sending to your daughter by choosing to display (or not display) the pictures: I think it would give her a sense of security to know that she can make mistakes in life, and still be loved, and still have a chance of being redeemed.

At the same time, when she's old enough to know the whole story, you should tell her of the pain that he caused, and explain that even though he will always be a beloved grandfather, his actions had repercussions that he eventually came to regret.

A balanced approach is always best, methinks.

FreeDragon said...

I think you should make copies to put in a scrapbook for your daughter. That way she knows her family, but since the photos are 'hidden' no one should be offended. You could display your favorite one and if your grandmother says anything tell her your grandfather is part of you just like she is. No matter how painful history may be, you can't erase it so there's no need to dwell on the past or be bitter.

JoeinVegas said...

Keep the pictures - they mean something to you, and that's what counts.

Jan said...

Wow. I have a very similair situation. My parents had a marriage very much like that of your grandparents. And while my dad wasn't a great husband and hasn't always been a great father, he is a wonderful grandfather to his grandchildren. He has also expressed regret for his past choices. There are rumors of at least one other child, of a teenaged past of bad choices that might have ended another boy's life and a judge that decided he needed to go to the military instead of prison, of countless affairs. My mother never got over her bitterness or anger.
However, I have a photo of the two of them, taken sometime right after they were married, when they were full of wonder and love and dreams. The first time I saw it, it filled me with such sadness and confusion. What went wrong? When did it go wrong? Why did it go wrong? When had these two young people, their futures before them, stop loving each other and turn against one another? After a while, though, I was able to look at this photo and see two people who DID love each other once and because of that love, my sisters and I were here on this Earth. Most of my life, all I saw was anger, bitterness and accusations from these two people. This photo helped me to see them before they turned into who they collectively became and it is now one of my most treasured possessions.

So in a word... display them. Or copies of them. Because of them, your mother is here. Because of them, you are here. Because of them, Baby Lawns is here.

Kristen said...

This has nothing to do with your post, but made me think of you. Did you see that Miss Doxie is back?

Anonymous said...

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rabrab said...

Display them. If your Grandmother ever does come to visit, you can put them away temporarily, but your house is your space and should be filled with the things that make you happy.

Would you not wear a dress to a party because your Grandmother wouldn't approve of it even though she won't see it? Not make a dish for dinner because she hates it, even though she's not going to be there? Surrounding yourself with the things that make you happy is more important than either of those.

Handy Man, Crafty Woman said...

I actually agree with the first poster, Raven. I was going to say pretty much what she said.

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