Family Snapshots

July 24, 2008
During the hottest June of my life, my grandpa asked me to help clean out the attic. It was the worst time of the year for that, but I couldn’t say no.

I loved the way the air was always heavy and musty up there, the view from the dirty windows, and most of all the boxes and boxes of old family things. I went into the attic every time I visited, but never had a chance to go through the boxes at the back. Now I would, I realized as I climbed the fold-down ladder. It creaked loudly when I got off at the top, and again when Grandpa started up after me.

I made a beeline for the boxes in the back, trailing a garbage bag after me, and started peeling the tape off the first box I laid eyes on. Someone had printed my mom’s name across the top in black marker.

“Hold on there,” Grandpa chuckled. “We have to get to the ones in the front first.”

“I’ll be there in a second.” I was disappointed, and it showed in my voice. I tried to stick the dried-out tape back over the box flaps.

“I’ll tell you what.” Grandpa came over and laid a strong hand on my shoulder. “We’ll get everything up here first”—he gestured at the front of the attic room—“and when you’re done, you can go through stuff back here. I’ll let you take home any of your mom’s old things you find.”

“She wouldn’t mind?” I was incredulous.

“Nope. She didn’t want to take it home in the first place.” He scratched his head, surveying the maze of boxes surrounding us. “It would get burned anyway.”

I nodded. Grandpa had a burn pit out back and he made it a habit to burn up anything that he and Grandma weren’t keeping. It saved on trash bills.

We each grabbed a black trash bag and started opening boxes near the ladder. I couldn’t believe all the interesting junk up there. The first box yielded lots of old cracked china. There was a set with jaunty blue wildflowers on it and a set with even jauntier red ones. The red set was mostly missing. I stuffed newspaper back into the box to cushion it and moved it aside. We found three other boxes full of china, at which point Grandpa got fed up and went to the next row of boxes. He didn’t like china very much.

After a while of this, we had a pretty good stack of boxes that would go downstairs and about four trash bags that we’d burn later. I threw one of the bags down the ladder. There was nobody down there. I yelled “Timber!” anyway, and the last three bags hit the floor with a dull thud.

Grandpa joined me. “I think we’ve done pretty well for ourselves,” he said, satisfied.

There was a large clear spot where the sunlight from the windows hit the floor now. Boxes had blocked all the light out before, and I realized how dark it was when we started working.

“I’m heading down,” Grandpa continued. “I’ll get rid of this, and maybe we can work at it more tomorrow.”

“Can I…” I gestured at the back of the room.

“Go ahead. Just be downstairs before it gets too dark.” Grandpa descended the ladder. I started back into the attic alone.

I found my mom’s box, and I peeled the tape off again. I peered inside at a jumble of colorful yarn and curved sticks. She had made dreamcatchers. I lifted one out and held it into the sunlight—the rose-colored tissue paper caught the light and shone. I smiled.

I set the dreamcatcher aside and moved on. The next box held a lot of junk and some leather-covered scrapbooks. I dusted a cover off with my dirty sleeve.

It read:


My mom would have been ten years old. I flipped through the first few pages, full of relatives I didn’t know. Then there were family shots I could actually recognize: my grandparents, my mom, and my uncle Al.

Mostly they were just snapshots, like the cover suggested, but there were some professional-quality pictures too. They were in no real order, and they weren’t confined to 1971 and ’72. Within the span of a couple pages, there was Al’s graduation picture, with sideburns frizzing out a mile; dress-up games in high heels and baggy suits, and countless Christmas trees.

I was fascinated. It was like a time capsule in picture form, a glimpse at a time I never knew. I spent a long time just looking. By the time I heard footsteps below me, it was getting dark and I hadn’t even noticed.

“Lin?” Grandpa hollered. “Supper!”

Weeks passed after that day’s attic cleaning and life was good for awhile. My grandparents’ was still my second home. Grandpa kept nagging everyone about the attic, but it was all cool. He knew as well as I did the attic would be fine if we left it for next summer. He just liked keeping busy.

Anyway, when I wasn’t at my grandparents’, I was hanging out with the kids back home: Tom, Lisa and Janelle, who were in seventh grade with me. And when none of them could come over, I pored over the attic boxes in my room.

Grandpa was right, my mom didn’t care that I brought them home—she was happy as long as I wasn’t making a mess or being annoying. Which I had a tendency to do, so maybe she was actually glad to have me occupying myself with her old boxes.

I was sitting on my bed paging through a scrapbook on one of those afternoons when the phone rang. My mom picked up the extension on the second ring. I slid off the bed and headed to my closet for a jacket, thinking I might run to Tom’s and see if he could come to a movie. Then I heard my mother sob. It was a harsh, choked sound, and it made my blood run cold: I froze in my tracks and looked helplessly down the hall at my mother’s room.

I didn’t get to see that movie with Tom. It turned out that it was Grandma on the phone.

She had gone to the doctor to have all those growing-pains issues checked out. She was tired, had a lot of aches, and she had to sit down a lot lately. It was no big deal, she was only getting older, right? Except that wasn’t it.

Grandma had cancer.

We spent a lot more time at my grandparents’ place after that. Every time we got in the car, my mother would grip the wheel and press her lips together tightly, and say “You just don’t know.” That was her motto when Grandma was sick. It was her reason for spending every waking moment there, and letting her own home go to shambles. We slept there some nights, and they were some of the hardest nights of my life… so I can only imagine how hard they were for my mom. But you just don’t know.

I think her point was that any day could be your last. Every sunset, every trip around the garden, every time the cat hops into your lap and spills your papers all over the floor—cherish that, because it might not happen again. Maybe it will all be taken away from you tonight.

I thought about that a lot, and Grandma probably did too because she took her illness with the bravest face I ever saw. It was a stage three diagnosis, so she only had two treatments. Then there was nothing they could do except make her comfortable and send her home.

From then on, every weekend was picnic day. Her windowsills were cluttered with flowers from her garden that my mom and Al carefully selected for her. She had visitors at all hours of the day, and she tried to make things brighter for everyone who stepped through her door.

One morning we packed up the car and headed home after spending the night, and a couple hours after we got back, the phone rang again. It was Al. He was crying a little, and I felt helpless. Mom was in the shower, so I couldn’t hand it off to her.

“What happened?” I asked through numb lips.

“It’s gone the other way now, Lin.” he said wearily. “Can you tell your mom?”

I nodded through my shock. Then I remembered he was on the phone.


“It won’t be long now. Thank God for that.”

I told Mom what Al said, and we left for the last time. As we were getting out of the car, a blue van stopped along the road and let a man out. It was the preacher from Grandma’s church; a young mild man with a beard. He was clad in jeans and a black shirt instead of his usual neat pressed slacks and preacher’s collar, like he was in that much of a hurry to get there. Seeing him like that made it real to me in a way that Al’s tears over the phone hadn’t.

Mom went inside, walking fast and with a purpose. I held back a little, not wanting to go in. The preacher walked toward the house and smiled at me sadly, holding the screen door open. I went inside with him.

Grandpa, Al and Mom were all crowded around Grandma’s bed. Grandma’s sisters were there, too. She was sleeping, but I made my way over and whispered my goodbye to her. I kissed her closed eyes, and stood. Suddenly my eyes were full of tears, and I couldn’t stand to be there any longer.

I left the house and let the screen door bang behind me. I sat down heavily and looked at the ground, letting my tears fall on the dirt.

“Hey,” a voice said softly.

My cousin Martin was there. He laid a hand on my shoulder and smiled a little. “You okay?” he asked.

I nodded and tried to return the smile. He was a lot older than me, nineteen years old against my own twelve. But it was good to have someone to wait with.

Martin linked my hand with his and we sat together, waiting for bad news to break the silence. For a long time it never did, but eventually the screen door banged and the preacher came out with a handkerchief.

“She’s at rest now, my children.” he said, his eyes shining wet. I remember thinking it was odd to be called his children, because Martin hardly looked younger than him. It’s funny how thoughts happen at a time like that.

Martin squeezed my hand and looked at the ground.

The next few days went by in a blur. Services, funeral, flowers and crying. I sought out Martin at the memorial service because I couldn’t see Grandpa so heartbroken when my heart was breaking already. Martin kept holding my hand.

At twelve, my family was my whole world. I had my friends, but they didn’t understand the way family did. To lose Grandma was to lose an entire part of my world, and Al, Martin, Mom and Grandpa were the only ones in the world who shared my sadness.

Summer plodded along. It was hard to be at Grandpa’s without seeing Grandma there, but we kept coming for dinner. Somehow we all ended up closer. I already knew Grandpa’s as a second home, but Al and Martin weren’t much more than relatives before. Now I found myself seeking out Martin instead of my friends when I needed comfort, and Al was becoming a sort of father figure.

That winter, I remembered the boxes Grandpa let me take home, and which had sat in my closet all year after Grandma got sick. Simply put, I forgot about them with everything going wrong.

Al and Martin came over for dinner one day after that, and I asked Martin to come up and go through some stuff from Grandpa’s attic with me.

“Yeah, alright,” he said cheerfully.

We went up together and pulled the boxes from the closet, and I rediscovered all the contents with him. The rose dreamcatchers, the scrapbooks, and things I never got around to finding before. Old clothing, a yellowed copy of Anastasia Krupnik, and a talking chipmunk whose voicebox was raspy and full of static.

Martin pulled the string on the chipmunk.

“Bar denew quack tribbling!” it drawled.

I laughed. “Can you repeat that, please?”

“It’s broken.” Martin protested, smiling widely. He obviously got a huge kick out of it.

He tossed the chipmunk aside, but his eyes kept wandering back. I opened a scrapbook and scooted over to Martin’s side, offering to look together.

Martin turned the first page, then snickered. It was the graduation picture of Al, the one with the sideburns that probably required a chainsaw to trim down.

“Enough!” he decided, closing it and pushing it aside. He grabbed another album. This one didn’t have a title, only a smooth blank cover. He opened it.

A young woman with a pretty smile gazed out at us from the pages. She was familiar. I felt like I’d been punched in the gut. Was this my grandmother?

Martin turned the page. More photos of the same girl, smiling, posing, laughing with friends. She looked happy, and she was so vibrant and young.

“Did you know these were in here?” Martin asked me, eyes still on the album page.

“No.” I could hardly take my eyes off them, either.

“We should give them back to Grandpa.” Martin murmured. He turned another page, handling each sheet delicately as though it might break.

Martin and I stood outside the post office. I held a thick square parcel in one mittened hand, and Martin was counting stamps out of a booklet.

“Four, five…” he counted quickly, ripping out a sheet and handing it to me. “…six, seven, eight.” He handed me another sheet.

“That should be good,” Martin said.

I peeled the stamps off the sheet and stuck them on the parcel. Then I wrote, “Merry Christmas, love from Lin” above Grandpa’s address. Martin added his name in his own sprawling hand.

We pushed the scrapbook in its parcel through the slot in the post office box together. I shivered a little in the cold, and Martin smiled at me.

“He’ll love it,” he assured me.

We turned and headed home together, hand in hand again.

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