I live among the dead and I have never felt so alive. My brother brought a mother lode of old family photos, childhood memories and vintage landmarks over to my house. The night he brought the pictures to me I wept; I was so overwhelmed by seeing my past life in photos that all those moments flooded back to me. I was a child again and so much promise and possibility lay ahead of me.
Oh, if I’d only known then…
I am happier than I have ever been in my life today, don't get me wrong, yet I know I could have done more with the gifts God gave to me and I certainly could have been better to my family. Now I can only look at their faces frozen in time on little square pieces of photographic paper.
I miss them all and even the ones I don't know make me wonder what it was like for them coming to America from Italy – afraid, poor, and unable to speak English. They must have sought out other Italians after being herded through Ellis Island like cattle, with their pride ripped from their hearts and shame on their faces as strangers changed their names because they were "too hard to pronounce." They were here now – America, the promised land!
We have a picture of great-grandmother and her family taken in the late 1800s, a lithograph. An old Italian soldier stands in the back row. I'm afraid we will never know his name or story now. The woman on the bottom left is my great-aunt. She looks eerily exactly like my mother, as if reincarnation were true.
Many birthdays and Christmases are photographed – all those special occasions that warranted the expense of a picture; not like with today's digital camera that allows you to photograph every moment in your life, significant or not. In our family, money was precious and they paid dearly to capture their loved ones on film.
Every picture of every wedding ever performed, whether the marriage lasted or not, is here at home with me now, and every photo of every birthday and Christmas present I ever opened and every candle my brother or I blew out on every cake my Grandmother and mother baked with love and pride just for us!
I have these pictures in a digital form now on my computer as a screen saver. They float past my peripheral vision like silent ghosts and beckon me to write.
There are many pictures of which I have no memory because I was not yet born. Many of the people that sit quietly staring at the camera lens are no longer of this world. I cannot interview them. I can only speculate about what they might have thought or how they might have felt about their new lives in America.
That they loved was obvious, but that they also felt pain was visible in many of the shots taken of them. Some have startled looks while others look tired, worn out, and weary after a long day making little pay in their shops and the factories in our little town.
My grandfather owned a shoe store. Every day he sat alone in the window of his little shop. In the morning, he would sit at his special sewing machine and make a pair of fine Italian leather handcrafted shoes, and every night he would take that same pair of shoes apart until someone finally came into the store and bought them. Now he could go out and buy another piece of leather to make two pairs of shoes!
I have pictures of my grandpa, grandma, and father shortly before their deaths. You could almost see the shadows around their shoulders and the way they held tentatively to this world.
Life, even if you are healthy, is brief.
I scanned pictures taken by my mother of the Lockport Canal in 1960. These pictures are of the ships as they churned and bobbed past the crowds on the docks making their way in the murky water to moor so they could be relieved of their bulge. This little trip to Lockport was taken with my brother Fred and my cousin Georgiann. I also have a little photo of us riding on the train.
My Dad could not be there because he had to work at the little Mom & Pop store he and my mom ran. It was called the B & E, and he was always there working to give us everything he never had for himself as a child, and like all children, we had no idea of the sacrifices he was making in his life for us.
I found some really old photos of Niagara Falls with a cable strung across through a gondola-shaped bucket that suspended the tourists above the spectacular landmark that is one of the many wonders in this world, right here in our backyard practically. Oh, how scary that picture looks!
I share these fleeting images and remember those who came before me, the sacrifices they made and dreams they gave up so that I might have a better life right here and now in America, the promised land.