On Monday, I called my grandparents to wish them a Merry Christmas. They were both coherent and "with it" and able to talk about how their holiday had been going. Both of them, separately, mentioned how much they enjoy my letters to them. Last night, I talked to Mom. Among the many topics, my letters to my grandparents came up again.
Every week since August, I have sent my grandparents a letter of some kind, and all of them with full color-printed pictures. The only exception was last week, when I sent them a thank-you note for the Christmas gift.
Mom commented that Grandpa had said that he really appreciated hearing from me every week, but had also made the comment that my letters did not have much content. And, just a day earlier, Grandpa had said to me that the photos were what he really enjoyed in my letters, and used the "worth a thousand words" quote.
I'm not hurt at all that Grandpa doesn't find much content in my letters. Sometimes, I find it very hard to share my day-to-day thoughts with someone six decades, two generations, and two thousand miles away in any manner that makes sense to the both of us together. I'm also admittedly not trying very hard to speak in depth in my words; my big effort has been to include those pictures. I am trying to give my grandparents a window. I'm not particularly trying to give them a window into my life, so much as give them a window out
of their life. In this manner, I think that photos are easy to share, because they can see what I see, but interpret them as they wish, not as I do.
Because of this quest for pictures to send to them, I've become kind of a nut about my digital camera. It lives in my purse now, so that I can take pictures wherever I go, of whatever might be interesting, different, unique, or simply representative of life-as-it-happens. I've taken pictures that annoy people, are contextually odd, or simply seem to be irrelevant to the people and items involved. But I ask my poor suffering friends to be patient, be understanding, and above all, consider how those photos will display when removed of nearly ALL of their context except that they come from me.
For example, recently I was out with H at an Indian restaurant, and took a picture of her dinner plate. The context of that photo is nearly irrelevant, and honestly, I could just as easily make up the narration as explain it truthfully. What is important is what it represents when my grandparents see it in color print in that next letter. That photo is an icon, a talisman, a simple calling-on of a cascade of thoughts. That plate of foreign-looking food is a reminder of what my grandparents have done in their long lives, a reminder of the wider world outside of their small one, and a reminder that the world out there still exists. It is a jumping-off point for their own conversations with other people, the "Remember when?" and the "Don't you like?" memory triggers that start stories and arguments that keep them thinking and talking with one another.
My grandparents currently live together in a small, sunshine-filled apartment in an assisted-living facility. That care facility is lovely, light, bright, cheerful, and as homogeneous as cream cheese. Their every physical need is met, but the mental needs are met and never challenged. My grandparents will never navigate a toy-strewn department store, dodge a waiter at a crowded bar, or race to catch that midnight train ever again. They will never again be lost in a foreign city, converse with a lost foreigner on the subway, or be faced with a dish of unrecognizable food in a noisy food court downtown.
So when you see me pull out the camera to take a picture of my flan with a happy face carved into it, or herd people together to pose with smiles over an oven-baked Hawaiian ham, or veer off the road to snap a photo of an oddly-painted house on a side street whose name I'll never remember, please be patient. Consider what that picture may represent to the eyes and mind of a 94-year-old whose adventuring days
are as gone as his youth. Consider that the photo that I take of you playing a board game, petting a puppy, or eating that odd-looking food might be the most interesting thing that my grandparents see all week.
Humor me, please, and smile for the camera!