All the Lives

Looking for photos for my daughter’s school project, I come across a heavy, very dusty old box that has been forgotten on the bookshelves. I lift the lid and the smell of lavender mothballs mingles with that of the old books and albums inside the box, liberated finally from their years of confinement and darkness.

The first album is brown and worn. I turn the front cover and find myself looking straight into the face of my mother, in a black-and-white photograph, just a few months after she was born. I turn the leaves and she looks at me still, this time at the age of two, with my beautiful Nan, her mother – my grandmother – and then at four or five, hugging a porcelain doll, and then again, in front of a birthday cake aged six or seven, wearing a white dress with ringlets in her hair, surrounded by her parents, aunts and uncles and grandparents, concentrating hard on blowing out the candles. The world is barely beginning for her, she has no way of knowing what will come later, all those things they don’t tell us when we are young in order to shield us.

In another album, a photograph taken from a low level makes the figure of my father stand out like a giant. There he is, skinny and relaxed, at thirty-something, with a black beard, dressed in a light blue Adidas tracksuit and holding a newspaper in one strong arm, the other one around the shoulders of my brother and myself. Just like my mother in front of her birthday cake in black and white, we have no idea of what life will throw in our paths yet, standing there dressed like footballers from the early ‘eighties, safe and secure because our dad is strong and beside us, and he loves us.

Images of my grandparents in the Soviet Union in front of a huge portrait of Lenin, of my father ploughing the earth with that little orange tractor of his, of my newborn brother in my arms one Christmas, of our first dog, a little German shepherd puppy called Hobo, which means tramp in American English.

Photographs which, in spite of the story they tell – and they tell a hell of a story – can project no more than a feeble glimpse of the lives we had, when nothing threatened us on the horizon, and everything was music and flowery meadows and blue skies under which we frolicked freely, before we woke up one day with the feeling we had lost all that forever.

(p.s. History repeats itself today. And it upsets me to imagine that one day our photographs will also tell our children something of what we were. Although a little piece of paper could never ever hold all that love within it).

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