Wednesday, January 4, 2012

January: In and Out, Back and Forward, Endings and Beginnings

January. Thanks to the collision of Percy Jackson (as in The Lightning Thief), Xena (as in "Warrior Princess") and social studies (as in the 6th grade curriculum on the Ancient World) with my daughter's imagination, January's relationship to the Roman god Janus is one of our current topics of conversation.

Janus: the Roman god of doorways and gates, beginnings and endings, and decisions. He was quite popular back in the day and his distinctive head (with two faces, one looking back, one looking forward) appears frequently on ancient coins and carvings. In our time, he also shows up in the name of a door manufacturer and a family of mutual funds.

Doors, decisions, financial questions, endings and beginnings are such January things. Doors open to welcome company, closed against biting winds. Year-end tax issues, charitable contributions, decisions on the benefits package from an employer, New Year's resolutions.

And another year older, both ourselves and the ones we love.

I did some looking back this fall. I asked my mother about a specific group of pictures taken by my father's parents on a trip to his home town in Georgia. She brought out what she had.

I didn't find the pictures I was looking for. I found something I needed: pictures of smiles. Smiles I was not around to witness, was to young to notice or had forgotten in the more recent years when they were thin on the ground.

I found a picture of my grandfather taken in the early days of his life with my grandmother. They must have been traveling, for a car features prominently in the background. A boyish joy radiates from the sepia image, even though he was 31 when they married. By the time I knew him, he was imposing and sometimes stern in the way of grandparents born in the first decade of the 20th century. It was hard to imagine him being young, being something other than the upright head of the family I remember from childhood, or the quiet gentleman courteously stepping aside for his rushing children and grandchildren as the world changed and his mind began to fail him. But there it was, in that picture.

I found pictures of my grandfather's beloved baby sister. She never married but lived quite a life. Pictures of friends - oh, I wish I knew how to be the friend she was. Photographs from trips to England and Italy, and to visit us. I had known how much fun she was to be with, but had been was too young to notice the beauty and confidence of a woman who had gone after what she wanted. I noticed it now because old age stole the confidence and left her with only depression and memories of depression. This sad person was the one at the top of my memory stack. It was good to be set straight.

And I found a picture of my grandmother, the woman who made by grandfather grin like a boy. She was a loving grandmother, but not the warm and fuzzy type. The box of toys she kept for us was very small and unimaginative (to my mind). She had high expectations and was hard to please. I remembered proper, grandmotherly smiles, not laughter. But my mother had snapped a picture that told a different story. There she is, at the head of the children's table one Christmas, beaming at us and laughing with us over something extremely funny.

It is a crying shame that the evils of the present can work back and eat at the love and joy that used to be. It's not that there was no pain or heartbreak, because there was. Even (maybe especially) humans that love each other can do horrible things to one another. But to remember only the bad isn't healthy.

My heart is lighter now. Looking back gave me these smiling faces to replace the weary, even blank shadows of later photographs. I have my family back in a way I never thought possible. And I have perspective that sends me forward in peace.

Healthy heart. Moving forward. Peace. January.


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(Cleveland Post, January 5, 2012)