By Jennifer Palmer
I recently found an image of my husband’s grandmother stashed away, hidden on some forgotten corner of my hard drive. I was purging; after years of simply dragging and dropping files from my camera to my computer without bothering to sort, I had many gigabytes of mediocre pictures needing to find a home in the recycle bin. I was flipping through old memories quickly—next, delete, next, delete—when this particular image jumped out at me, gave me a moment’s pause. It is not good in any technical or artistic sense; the light was dim and I did not use a flash and so the image is grainy, the faces blurred ever so slightly. It should not have survived my sweep, and yet it held my attention, demanded my contemplation. I did not delete it.
The photo was taken six years ago, when Grandmommy was in her early eighties. In it, she is hunched, bent slightly at the waist. Her poor posture is not due to age, though that would certainly be a reasonable excuse; after eight decades on this Earth, one earns the right to stoop. No, she leans forward for an obvious purpose: she has a hold of two of her great-grandchildren, cousins of mine, one small hand clasped in each of her own. The kids are young. The girl sports the holey grin of one recently visited by the tooth fairy; the boy is barely past the age of diapers. Grandmommy’s eyebrows are raised, her mouth open with a hint of a smile, her face forming that expression of excitement and fun adults so often assume when indulging a child they love. They form a circle, two blonde heads and one gray.
Other photos in the series offer a fuller explanation of what is happening: in one, the three of them are walking in a circle, in another, they’re seated on the floor. Or rather, the kids are. Grandmommy is bent nearly double, feet still planted, her hands touching the ground so that the human chain remains intact. Ring around the rosy, then, played together while waiting for supper to be served. A children’s game, reserved for those who are very young and those who are young at heart, captured in a moment of pure innocence. The participants are unaware of the camera, unaware of the bustle of food preparation in the background, unaware of anything, really, except each other and the circle they form.
This is a group of images worth keeping, worth sharing.
My hard drive is home to another group of images worth sharing, this set more carefully taken, more lovingly preserved. Five and a half years after the ring around the rosy series, it is now 2014, and, though you can’t tell from the photographs, the intervening half decade has not been kind to Grandmommy. Age has taken its toll. Dementia has set in, devouring memories and leaving nothing but confusion in its wake. A fall and resulting broken hip have made mobility for Grandmommy more of a challenge. But the woman in the photographs does not look much different from the one who played with her great-grandchildren a few years earlier. In fact, if you didn’t know better, you might think no time has passed at all.
Grandmommy sits in a rocking chair in the corner of a room, the walls behind her a pale green hue found only in hospitals. She holds the tiniest of swaddled bundles in her lap—my daughter, just two days old. There are many photographs of the two of them together, taken one after another; a moment such as this, the meeting of one so very young and one so very old, does not happen every day. Most of the images depict what you might expect from such a moment. The baby lies in Grandmommy’s arms, asleep, oblivious to the world around her. Grandmommy’s head tilts downward, her gaze fixed on her great-granddaughter’s face. The scene is one of tranquility, of peace, of wonder.
My favorite photo in the series, however, is the first—the only one in which Grandmommy is not looking at the baby at all. Instead, she looks up and out of the frame, as if at someone who didn’t make it into the shot. Her mouth tips up in a grin, her eyes alight with an unspoken question, and her hands wrap protectively around the little one in her lap. She is a young child clasping some precious treasure, an heirloom doll, perhaps, or an antique rattle, something far too special for her to hold. She impishly begs an older and wiser adult if she can keep it. The Grandmommy in the photograph does not seem to remember she has difficulty walking, or that her memory is fading, and she is no longer able to care for an infant, even for an hour. She cannot recall the work involved in changing diapers, in middle-of-the-night feedings. She has forgotten much, but the look in her eyes implies that she remembers this, at least: that children are precious, that the world is a fascinating place, that there is plenty in our lives that is worthy of reverence.
I have other photographs of her, of course, images with her beside Granddaddy at his 90th birthday celebration; of her reading a picture book to a great-grandson, the younger sibling of those who played ring-around-the-rosy; of her wearing a paper headdress clearly fashioned by young hands, made for fun from a child’s imagination and worn out of a great-grandmother’s love. But these two groups of pictures—of her playing ring around the rosy, of her delighted with the baby in her arms—embody Grandmommy to me more than the others. Gracious, gentle, kind. A lover of children. An observer of the world, not afraid to lose herself in wonder.
Grandmommy passed away this week. I did not know her as well as I wish I had, to my shame and regret. Feeble though the excuse sounds in my ears now, modern life got in the way with all of its distraction and obligation, and kept me from making the time I should have made. Still, even as she aged and her memories slipped away, the core of who she was remained true. These photographs, moments frozen in time, were taken when she was unaware she was being watched, when her defenses and masks were stripped away. They capture this woman, reveal her heart and her spirit to those who will take the time to look. Until her final days, she maintained her fascination with the world and her love for children and babies. Though befuddled and confused, she remained cordial and loving, becoming ever more childlike in her wonder for the smallest things and people around her. Though she is gone now, the images remain, a testament to who she was, to the treasure hidden beneath the surface.
Ring around the rosy, pocket full of posies. Ashes, ashes, we all fall down.
Author’s Note: Grandmommy passed away on January 15, 2015, and I wrote this piece shortly thereafter. Though the emotions surrounding her death are no longer fresh, the traits I highlighted here stand out ever more clearly in my memories of her. I hope that who I am at the core, when everything else is stripped away, will be as kind and gentle and loving as Grandmommy was. It seems fitting, somehow, to honor her memory with this essay, one year later, and I’m grateful to Brain, Child for including me in their grandparent blog series.
Jennifer Palmer lives in Northern California with her husband and daughter. Her essays have appeared online at Mamalode, Good Housekeeping, and Brain, Child. She writes about finding the beauty in everyday life at Choosing This Moment.