I accepted a Facebook chain letter.
A trusted friend posted about a connective event for book lovers. The directives were to send your favorite book to someone.
It worked just like any other chain letter. Send one to this address, add your address to the bottom, move it along.
Because my recipient was a friend of the instigator, I trusted she may have similar tastes and sent her an all-time favorite, Cowboys are my Weakness by the (in my eyes) soul-seeing Pam Houston.
It was like Christmas every day. Different packages started arriving from around the globe. In addition to a lesson in how large your network is, it was so amazing to rip open packages and get some kind of confirmation from others that you’re reading the same things they are. The first few books I received I’d already read and I didn’t care. I loved that someone else held them as a favorite and shared them with me.
I got about 20 books in total over about three months.
Then, I got a random message in Facebook. Jack. He said he was a cousin because he was a cousin of my Aunt’s. He was a complete stranger to me, but he said he saw the book exchange on her page, had some books to get rid of and was choosing to send them all to me.
The box arrived completely taped. He’d printed the address and postage on a home laser printer on a piece of photo paper. A scrap, I’d imagined, that was available in lieu of regular office white.
Then, again, not trusting postal efficiencies, he put the glossy paper address and postage slip into a large Ziploc bag, folded it over and overtaped it to the box. No one and nothing would disrupt this address. Not rain, nor sleet, nor snow.
And then it slipped out. A single, now flattened, aged photograph of a family. I thumbed through more pages of the volume I was holding and every few pages revealed another photograph.
I shook. I thumbed. I flipped. Through every book. I scoured them for other photos, eager to recover the treasures.
His mother, the heroine of the randomly assorted photo story and the consistent member of most images, aged before my eyes.
Each photo was meticulously labeled. Labels were straightforward. Judy, Jean, Elva. A fiance, later labeled in a different color of ink as “first wife.”
They were amazing. John’s family, going back generations, captured from wedding photos to the same couple in front of a first house, to a family reunion. A new baby. Two. Charlie’s Studebaker. Aunt Elva.
It was so nostalgic to look back at this stranger’s family history. In part because it didn’t feel strange. It was so full of my lived experience. I had those pictures of stoic grandparents holding their first child in black and white. I have pictures of my mother, bound by white Kodak frames with dates in the 1960s and 1970s imprinted on the edges. I have 4 x 6 family holiday photos from the 1980s with family gathered around the table, the cotton poinsettia table cloth beneath the good china, the ashtrays, the cordial bottles and after dinner drinks, half-eaten pie, decks of cards.
My favorite part is as Elva, one of the key matriarchs, ages, she is later labeled as “Fat Elva.” I’ve decided as she aged, she teased about gaining weight and a new generation of family members took up her teasing and her name officially adopted the adjective.
I’ll admit I got teary. I was shuffling through a montage of life in middle America from post World War I to Ronald Reagan. It was at once familiar and mysterious. It was comforting to see a way of living that’s permanently ingrained in my childhood memories. It was a common background, a universality that was so poignant.
In my head, I wrote the story. Jack was likely emptying a shelf or two from an aging parent’s home. Or his own. Pictures stashed and saved from long ago were forgotten and like hitting a story-fodder jackpot, they arrived in my mailbox.
I messaged him and explained I had the photos. He let me know how accurate I was: He was digitizing his mother’s photos and had stashed them long ago to flatten them.
I learned more story than any of the books Jack sent could have delivered.
The lesson: Family is a pretty consistent entity in this life. There’s a comfort in recognizing yourself in others. And, time marches on. We’re all out there collecting and documenting the same memories. And, most of these memories are celebrations. We forget that.
The other lesson here, one on the practical side, is that my nieces and nephews, their grandchildren, they aren’t going to stumble on a photo pile from my current life. I’ve been digitally documenting my world for years now. Clearly, producing more photo books or returning to tangible, printed images of a few random moments of our lives is something I must tend to.
Now, which book to hide them in?
Feminist, activist, outdoor advocate, animal lover, chocolate shake lover, reader, watcher, talker, actor, speaker, worker, writer, urban adventurer, hustler, involved, passionate, excited, ready.