The photo is tucked into a book of recipes – the kind that has the smell of a secondhand bookshop. It nestles next to a hand-written recipe on a small folded sheet of paper rendered in Sütterlin, that I know came from the Old Man. It’s a recipe for Leberkäse, a sort of giant square sausage that is a default snack served hot in thick slices on Kaiser rolls. You can buy these concoctions almost anywhere – supermarkets, stands outside the tram stops, cafés and atop mountains in the huddled stone Gasthäuser. My sister disputes that the Old Man wrote this recipe – she thinks the writing is too untidy. I assert that the type of paper – a sheet of A6 grid ruled paper torn from a notebook is his precise calling card. I point out that when he was excited – or drinking – his writing became this smeary style- like the pen itself was weeping sticky ink. Even 20 years later it still looks wet enough to smudge with the stroke of a finger. She doesn’t agree, but we leave the dispute in an uneasy truce.
Don’t panic – I’m not about to print the recipe at the bottom of this post.
But it is the photo that drew my thoughts in the wee hours of this morning. I was settling my preschooler who had woken from a bad dream, and in that crucial moment of getting myself back to sleep I thought about the photograph, and my mind took off into those 3am streams of thought that so often lead to watching the predawn light from the couch, realising that you have had about 4 hours sleep and the whole working day is stretching out ahead of you. I thought about the photo and my brain wouldn’t turn off.
It’s a 4 x 6 black and white print – taken sometime in the early 1950’s of my great grandmother. It’s a studio portrait – well exposed and remarkably sharp and clear. She’s about 63 years old, staring into the camera lens with eyes that look remarkably familiar, though she died decades before I was born. I know that my father was gifted her nose, and my sister her eyes – though I would never tell her that – it’s not a comparison that would be seen as flattery. A stamp on the back shows the studio details of where the portrait was taken and developed- in Wiener Neustadt.
It’s one of several copies, I’m sure. This print is almost utterly pristine – no foxing stains and only a gentle yellowing of the stock itself. I recall a framed duplicate that was badly damaged – with the edge of the paper smushed and stained with rust. How this copy escaped all that, I am not certain. I lie in the dark and think about how I need to frame the portrait and hang it on the photo wall that dominates our lounge room. Then I think about the fact that there is not a single photo of the Old Man there, and then my Mother, and so on, as the seconds designated for sleeping sweep away.
And finally I realise that I have no clear idea of what my great grandmother’s name is. I simply don’t know her name. And I don’t know who my great grandfather was at all. I’m not even sure if she was married to him. Having learned the awful truth about my grandfather had distracted from the life of the woman in that photograph. I know she went to Africa with the Old Man, from one conversation had as a small child with him on a camping trip. I know she was born in 1890 in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. That’s all I know. And it seems a true shame that until this point I never thought to ask, or to care enough.
There is a lot of ‘tea-towel wisdom’ about living in the moment. It’s good advice, to a degree, when Zen teaches us not to get mired in a past we cannot change, nor speculate upon a future we cannot foresee. Lying in bed wondering about questions of genealogy a few scant hours before I have to commute to work, it is clear that a capacity to be more discretionary about this would be a huge plus. My nights should be for sleeping, and not worrying about a piece of minutiae that has not trouble me once in twoscore years on this planet . But also there is a sense that living in the moment is not always exactly healthy in the way we practice it. Smartphones distract us with the ephemeral melody of notifications and rob us of solitude. Social media prompts us to curate an image of our lives that is neither realistic nor sustainable. We replace mindfulness with a sort of pop-eyed caffeine fueled alertness that is more akin to paranoia than appreciation.
History is nothing but assisted and recorded memory. It might almost be said to be no science at all, if memory and faith in memory were not what science necessarily rest on. In order to sift evidence we must rely on some witness, and we must trust experience before we proceed to expand it. The line between what is known scientifically and what has to be assumed in order to support knowledge is impossible to draw. Memory itself is an internal rumour; and when to this hearsay within the mind we add the falsified echoes that reach us from others, we have but a shifting and unseizable basis to build upon. The picture we frame of the past changes continually and grows every day less similar to the original experience which it purports to describe.George Santayana
We should know our past, and consider the lives of those who shaped the world so that, for better or worse, we could live in it. It is not the fault of the contrivances of modern life that I cannot name a single family member beyond the last two generations – that blame lies squarely with me. I was seduced by the glitter of the ephemeral, and convinced myself that there would be more time to ask the awkward questions, time when I wasn’t chasing parties and girls and validation. Of course there wasn’t, and now I am reduced to seeking these answers from people and places that add another layer of obfuscation and interpretation to the stories of where I came from. My nights should be for sleeping, and my days should be for wakefulness, walking with my ancestors and building the world they hoped for- for a future they could not foresee.