I was down in Los Angeles a couple of weeks ago for another round of spelunking in the family archives. My explorations were extremely successful. I found scads of old letters, notebooks, calendars, and greeting cards. My grandmother was a terrific archivist, and my mother has preserved everything.
A trip like this is a journey within a journey. First there is the awkwardness of getting from one place to another. Travel has never been simple. I pack my bags, rush to the airport, park the car, and run the triple gauntlet of customs, immigration, and security. No matter how many times I make the trip, I’m always fretful about it. In my stress, I feel that time has accelerated.
Digging in the archives constitutes a second journey, one that takes me back in time. I haul a box down from the shelf in the closet, blow the dust off, and begin rummaging. Some of the paper is crumbling. The penmanship is antique. The manners revealed by the writing are those of a bygone era.
The photographs are the most arresting artifacts of all. Some are mounted in heavy albums with deckle edges, others in ornate metal frames with maroon velvet backing. The older ones are in black and white. The people in the photographs wear stiff and formal clothing—tweed and neckties for the men, high-necked dresses for the women, and hats for all.
Many of the artifacts I find are of more recent origin, and these arouse mixed feelings. How silly we all looked back in the seventies. (One day we will think the same thing about the way we look now.) Those greeting cards from decades past—how quaint they look. I realize with a start how quickly the years have flown by.
You might think that these journeys into the past would relieve my stress and ease me back into the pace of a simpler time, but this is not what happens. When I see all those boxes, I groan inwardly at how little time I have to go through them. Resolving to cover as much ground as possible, I begin hurriedly sifting through it all, setting aside papers and letters to take home with me for closer reading. Those modern devices, the laptop and digital recorder, sit at my side. My fingers fly over the keyboard as I take notes.
My mother is a companion on these journeys. She has been extremely supportive of my efforts. These boxes of mementoes belong to her, and her memories reach back further than mine, so it’s only natural that we travel together. Besides, she has her own reasons for bearing witness to our familial past.
But herein lies a difficulty. It’s hard to get in sync with my mother—she is interested mainly in the time of her childhood, but I have already written about that stage, and I now want to explore a more recent era. I have to honor her wishes, not only out of respect for her prerogatives, but also because serendipity might reveal something vital. But it’s no use telling me to relax and slow down, and inwardly I seethe with impatience. What’s more, my technology is acting up on me. The computer and digital recorder are new, and I fumble with both devices.
When I refocus my attention on the past, I am struck by the cultural shifts that have taken place in just a few decades. My grandmother had a heart attack in 1972, and her devoted friends wrote repeatedly, sending cards and long letters. Their manners are formal in comparison to those of our current digital age. The writers are chatty and solicitous. I see nothing snide or breezy in those pages, no emoticons or LOLs. The get well cards are also enormous things no retailer would stock today. The dematerialization of objects we see in the present era began well before the digital age.
Later, after we put away the boxes, I reflect on the day. There is a difference between then and now. The present makes many demands on us, with things shooting off in all directions at once. It’s stressful, and in our haste, we scratch at the surface of things. Life seems shallow.
The past makes no such demands. We take it in at leisure. As we study those old photographs, our relatives seemingly return our gaze, as interested in our stories as we are in theirs. This peculiar sensation—of entering the past—lies at the heart of our journey. It is the wellspring of nostalgia, the sense that then was slow, unhurried, and reflective, while now is hectic, jarring, and superficial.
I spent three days in L.A., digging through the archives and talking about the old days with my mother. I also visited with my sister and her family and played with my seven year old nephew, who, of course, is immune to nostalgia. It was a relief to spend that time in the present. All this sifting of the past produces a heightened state of mind, which is poignant and pleasurable, but also hard to bear. I think it’s taxing for my mother. As much as she expresses appreciation for my project, these archive sessions seem to leave her drained. When we said goodbye, a gust of emotion blew across her face.
© 2012 – 2014, Andy Kubrin. All rights reserved.