Tuesday, August 9, 2022

The traces we leave...

Earlier this week I disposed of an old bedside cabinet at our house in France. It was one of those items you feel guilty for dumping, but deep down know the charity shop won't want either. For the last two years, it's stood by our front door so the postman can leave small parcels. When the mice took up residence, it was time to let go.

But as is the way here, recycling it meant removing the marble top, separating the lining from its outer casing, checking each section for nails ... And in so doing, discovering a photograph that, decades earlier, someone had taped to the underside of a drawer.  An image of two girls looking into a lens saw its first light of day for lord knows how long.

Who'd put it there I wondered?  The faces suggest they are sisters, but whose daughters or granddaughters might they be? And why paste their picture where it wouldn't be seen?  Are they still with us... or gone now, like the cabinet that housed the fragment of their past?  

I guess we could weave all manner of stories from such flimsy threads. But that's what novelists do, and I'm not one of those. 

So instead I pondered the traces we leave...  

My neighbour is a mason who restores historic buildings — every time I see him at work I'm in awe. Like many craftsmen, he brushes off praise. But if you asked, he'd explain the tradition of mason's marks and how to find 'signatures' in the stone of cathedral walls. His imprint will endure for generations too. 

Many years ago my mother wrote a song for her primary school class. One of my earliest memories is her figuring the tune on chime bars at our home. It's since been published in dozens of hymn books and is widely recorded around the world. By the time she dies, how many hundreds of thousands will have sung 'I listen and I listen'?  No doubt, we will play it at her funeral.

And what will I leave?  

Some writing perhaps, at least for as long as it lasts; there are two obscure rock climbs I've given a name to; perhaps someone will keep one of my paintings...  Jane and I like to think that every house we've owned has benefited from our stewardship. With luck, there'll be some inheritance...  

But beyond these tangibilities?

Very little I hope. For legacies are not the purpose of life or indeed the best measure of our contributions. There's value in making a difference now: in helping and healing, in supporting and providing; in simply making ends meet so that those we love can flourish. In an age when we're so driven to 'succeed', some say we should live more in the moment. 

Though by historical standards, we generally do. I read somewhere that very few of us know the forenames of our great grandparents; after three generations we're lost to memory.  That seems to me, no bad thing, for I've always thought the veneration of ancestors to be misplaced. If I could visit any time in history, I'd choose the future, not the past.

As I write the conclusion to this post, I'm struck that my doing so has been delayed. 

Why?  

Because for a week I lost the picture of the girls, absentmindedly putting it down to watch the contrails in the sky across our valley.  Had I not tidied up, it would have curled and faded in the sunlight that streams through the window. Every day here, the planes go back and forth...  a web of slipstreams that momentarily sparkle, then fade to oblivion. 

16 comments:

  1. Oh my goodness me... I am now totally absorbed in thoughts of those two young girls. Who were they? Why was their photograph "hidden"? Why does the older one look so sad?

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  2. A mystery, those girls. One so solemn, the other a bit less.
    What do any of us leave? I suppose that what I will have left is what nature asks of most of us- our genes. Beyond that, very little. Which is fine with me.

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  3. Hari OM
    If you know something of the provenance of the cabinet, you may have some clues. I cannot help but think these children needed to be protected - this page explains.

    Traditionally, mandalas are created with sand or flowers or other similarly temporary media; the designs to show the depth and breadth of creativity, the short-lived nature of the work to demonstrate any ego attached to that creation betrays us. Tibetan monks will go so far as to spend several days on a design - then take a broom and sweep it away as soon as it is complete. YAM xx

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  4. Old cabinetry has rich history. The girls must be relatives of a previous owner. The hidden photo certainly raises more questions. Our time here is short. Enjoy each moment. Dust to dust.

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  5. Could those young girls been Jewish and the picture hidden so as to have a remembrance of them after the Nazis came and went, to be pulled forth later? The hair styles and dress could have been from the late 30's early 40's.

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    1. What a thought... and what a story that would be. The centre of the alpine resistance movement was based not far from my house.

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  6. I would say those two girls are sisters. I decided to make quilts for my younger family members and I made a few so far. Jack's birth and care kind of threw a spanner in the works, so to speak but I'm still slowly working on them. Right now I'm in the midst of deconstructing an old quilt that I found at a thrift shop. It's bits and pieces, thrown together, more than once and includes baby embroidery like my mum used to do, on flour sacks. I'm taking it apart and mending it, hoping to make a new baby quilt for a new baby.

    Who knows what will survive and what won't, other than genes and even those are iffy.

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  7. i remember singing that song,but only the last verse

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    1. My mum will be delighted. That's the best verse too I think.

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  8. The photograph tells the story only the two girls and the keeper knew. It is just a frame in time. I have downsized so much that I now miss my books, so perhaps inheritance for your children will require some rubbishing of the clutter accumulated over a lifetime.

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  9. I had myself down as someone who tended to look forward not back, and definitely I am suspicious of excessive veneration of ancestors. THat said, I'll admit certain items in the family archive I inherited from my parents (letters mostly, and my Dad's WW2 RAF log book) are now among my most treasured possessions.
    And this post has sent me back to a family tree prepared by a second cousin, so I can now tell you the names of at least one set of great grandparents: Thomas and Bessie!
    I'll admit I hadn't heard your mother's song before, but oh what a lovely thing to pass down.
    Cheers, Gail.

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  10. I think that accepting our own impermanence is the first step to wisdom. We have no to make a difference. I agree with Yamini. For whatever reason, those girls needed to be protected. Have you any clue to the provenance of the cabinent?

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    1. Boy. I need to stop commenting with my phone. What I meant to say is that most of us will not make a big difference in this world. We can only do what we can do, and when we are gone, well...it will be done, won't it? Your mother's little song has allowed her to leave behind a small but definite mark in this world. I will not leave a mark at all. My permanence will last only as long as the people whose lives I have shared. As that circle grows smaller, my memory will grow dimmer and dimmer until it blinks out altogether. I'm okay with that. Sometimes I find myself wondering if my life has been used as wisely as it should have been, but in the end, what I know for sure is that I played my hand as best that I could with the cards that life has dealt me.

      I came back here to ponder that picture, and to see if I could find a match in the holocause museum. My guess is that your table belonged in a Jewish house hold. The girls were sent away for their own protection, but were near by, perhaps with changed identities. The picture was hidden, because to be discovered would have been a clue to their possible discovery and capture. That's what I think.

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  11. Your kids and your family history will be a legacy. That photographic mystery is intriguing.

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  12. Whoever transcribed the lyrics of the song on You Tube missed out the word 'wind' which whistles through her hair.

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  13. That photo has haunted us for days and we wondered about a possible Jewish connection too. F had a friend in NZ whose mother (and her brother) had been brought to NZ from France by their mother in the early days of WWII. Someone had agreed to foster them and their mother returned to France never to be seen of heard of again. The war ended and no one came back for them. They grew up New Zealanders and must have wondered all their lives what their real story was. They must have been too young to remember much because the friend was born in the early 60s to a Mum who was still doing her nursing training. A photo like that of two very small children growing up half a world away might still be taped under a drawer somewhere in France.

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