By Varda Levy
The collection was begun in the late ’50s, when my brother moved from Israel to live across the globe in the United States. We celebrated every mail delivery of pictures he had sent, studying eagerly each magical image. Shortly thereafter, my mother would appropriate the photos to be stuffed in a large envelope she buried in her purse. She took advantage of every family meal, coffee time, or card game to afford others the pleasure of marveling at the way her son looked, the cars he drove, or whom he dated. In time and with the unfolding family fate, my sister followed suit, moving to the United States, and eventually even I, the youngest of three siblings, found myself making a life in California.
My mother stayed in Israel, where a family joke emerged: Michla was coming-for-a-visit-with-her-pictures. It was a ritual she never missed when entering the living room of a friend or a family member — out came the envelope, followed by distribution of recent and not so recent photos of her beautiful, loving children in the States. Eventually the collection boasted grandchildren — a snuggly wrapped baby, a toddler balancing weight on two chubby feet, two little boys caught in a tight embrace, a young football player, a budding ballerina, smiling cousins seated around the Passover table.
With each passing year, the envelope of pictures became fatter and fatter, gathering bulk, occupying a greater share of the volume in my mother’s purse. We thought her habit quaint, a mildly comical compulsion of a Jewish mother, possibly overly-focused on her offsprings. Michla’s pictures always tagged along.
At the time, we, her three adult children, could not fathom the depth of her need to connect. We were the epicenter of our young, growing families, too busy in the midst of still emerging lives. We were involved parents — working, shopping, car-pooling, scolding, consoling, hosting. Family life surrounded us; we created and managed it. It exhausted us. If we needed anything, it was a periodic escape to tend to our own needs. How could we possibly comprehend the void overflowing from within the bulging envelope?
Nowadays, a grandmother myself, I mourn the fact that tucked within my mother’s substantial envelope were not only the faces she adored but also the hugs and kisses she would not experience, the chatter and laughter she did not hear, the sumptuous meals and delicious cakes she could not serve. Precious moments of deferred joy were there — a longing to be present, not realized.
I note today my own ever-present need to take an even small part in the lives of my children and grandchildren, to occupy the same space and, at the very least, observe. Updates are welcomed, of course — phone conversations, emails, text messages, not to mention the periodic FaceTime that allows a semblance of a visual conversation with a child. Certainly, my world provides opportunities for family communication that my mother could not begin to imagine. Still, I am struck by the realization that the plethora of electronic tools afforded me today are not much different than the stuffed photo envelope in my mother’s purse. Even so, I caution myself to beware electronic exchanges as substitutes for being there.
When my mother passed in her mid-80s, my brother, sister and I found among her belongings a treasure-trove of photos, too numerous to fit in any single envelope. The collection unveiled a haphazard but detailed retelling of our lives. Every chapter was represented. There we were, hugging spouses and children, living active, diverse lives. My mother was rarely present. We saw her image in the occasional trip, when we visited her, or in the Bar-Mitzvah celebrations, when she travelled to us. However, for the most part, my mother was outside the pictorial world she had painstakingly constructed, fashioned by the static photos she gathered for decades.
We were all the poorer for that.