Early yesterday morning—E still up due to insomnia; me just up for a free couple hours before work—I tried to explain why I feel so broken at the moment. Why I can’t write. Why any talk of what to write, or what I’ve been trying to write, is pointless and should be voided from all discussion. I don’t think he knew how to respond. It will pass, he assured me. And it will, I believe this somewhere inside myself. But when you are down in the hole where you can’t see far past your own hand it is hard to remember that you’ll get out of it, you’ll pick up the pen again, you always do.
My grandfather always wanted to be a photographer. He took photographs all his life. In fact, he had a home business doing so—he photographed at least four presidents; he photographed Marilyn Monroe. Still, most of what he photographed wasn’t this. You wouldn’t recognize his name. I don’t think he ever reached the ideal of the career he had in mind for himself. Always, he was struggling. I remember a sour old man in the back room of a small apartment, barely moving from the recliner chair no one else was allowed to sit on. I remember a decades-old disappointment I don’t think I fully understood until now.
I recently found a note he’d written to me in college, when I was majoring in photography. He said he was honored to know that I was following in his footsteps. It breaks my heart to think I no longer take photographs anymore, not really, since snapshots of the New York City sidewalks surely don’t compare to the kind of work he did. In fact, in college I had a self-designed major combining writing and photography, and my love of photography was not so much about documenting the important figures and events of the world but experimenting with portraits of friends and playing around in the darkroom. When I was 21, I could have applied to graduate programs in photography, I suppose, but that was not my dream. I chose writing; I haven’t looked back since. The only person who might be disappointed about this is my grandfather.
When he was older, his eyes began to fail him. He had a fancy camera with fully automatic features, and I think it pained him to use it. When he died the rabbi performing the funeral service didn’t know much about him. He came to us, the family, the night before the service, to ask what he should say about my grandfather—he didn’t even know he was a photographer. I don’t know how it happened, maybe it was my grandmother who asked me, maybe it was my mother, but I ended up being the one person in our small family to give a personal eulogy. I spoke of his photography. I was choked up, but I didn’t cry. I don’t recall a word of what I said that day; I didn’t know my grandfather well enough to know if I said what he would have wanted.
I think of him often, though we lived far apart throughout my life and weren’t very close. I think of his dream, unspoken, held tight in his heart as he sat in his chair before the TV. Something surrounded him, kept him separate from us. I think he thought he’d failed. But does he know how much I admire that he never gave up?
I wonder… What was it he really wanted to photograph? What is it I really want to write?
I might be broken at the moment, I might feel like I’ve failed, but there is something tugging me along, telling me to pursue the dream, to always—no matter what anyone else thinks of me—keep pursuing it. Will I one day be sitting in a chair alone in a room during a family holiday wishing I’d lived my life differently, is that my fate? Maybe. Maybe not.