Sometimes the past comes back when you least expect it. It’s sneaky that way, always hooking in from the side like a punch you never see coming. One minute you’re standing there without a care in the world and the next you’re lying on the ground wondering how you got there.
Lately I’ve been having flashbacks to my formative years, or more precisely, to those relatives who adorned them in ways I can only guess at. What disturbs me is that none of the flashbacks contain enough detail to enable me to reach across the decades and reconnect. The faces and places recede into the distance almost as rapidly as they materialize, leaving me grasping at shadows.
It started late last year after a particularly memorable Thanksgiving dinner. My family had retired to the den to watch a slideshow of old family pictures dating back to the 1950s and 1960s, the slides grainy and speckled with lint and dated not so much for their yellowed tint but for the clothing styles in evidence. I’m pretty sure that style wasn’t in our lexicon back then other than poor white trash style, not that we considered ourselves poor or white or trash, though we were white and poor or close enough to it to have some of it rub off on us. Trash is what we took out, also the neighbors to the south. They probably weren’t poor but they were definitely trash. They taught me from an early age that the world is an inhospitable place, that no matter who you are or how polite, kind or generous, somebody is going to dislike you for no good reason. I also learned that it didn’t matter in the long run. You couldn’t let other people run, or ruin, your life. But you better watch out for them, too. With some folks it’s never a good idea to let down your guard.
There was a lot of festive jeering and hollering going down that evening. We laughed and yelled and silently yearned our lost who couldn’t be there with us. My father was a prodigious photographer back in the day, something I don’t think we appreciated as much as we should have, or would later in life after so many of those faces were gone. The old slides of the funny-dressed people with their broad lapels and scarlet pants that barely reached their ankles and the plaid shirts and lime green shoes, could that really have been us? We couldn’t remember dressing that way, nor, if we did, would we ever admit it. The best excuse we could offer was that we were merely caught up in the times. We were products of the fifties and sixties, and then the seventies, which were worse in almost every way.
Since then, those faces keep dancing on the periphery of my consciousness. I find myself turning to greet them while a surge of adrenaline hammers through me, but they slip away without a sound.
Other, lesser, memories rise to the surface. Today while I was trimming my whiskers I remembered that I wanted to grow a beard when I was 20. Unfortunately, I worked as a security guard at an electrical transmission plant in northern New Mexico, which meant we were to appear groomed and professional at all times. No beards. Appearances were deceiving, however, because most of the people I worked with were sociopaths, alcoholics, druggies and losers. I wasn’t much better. We were damaged people and knew it, barely hanging on to sanity and the distant, if not fading, belief in redemption. We were second chance people. Some of us made it, and some didn’t.
This beard-lust phase lasted about a year as I went through a belated, and unrequited, hippie phase brought on by a girl. After a while she left town and I went back to being whoever I was while I was in between everything, and I forgot about beards until 15 years later when suddenly I grew one on a lark.
I never made the connection between then and now, or then and then, as it were. It wasn’t as if I grew it as the culmination of an unfulfilled longing. It just happened, like deciding to wear hiking boots instead of tennis shoes. And now, so many years later, the connection pops into my head and I find myself laughing in the mirror. I did it, I thought, I actually grew a beard and liked it so much that it’s not come off my face except for two short spells that ended badly, or farcically, anyway. And then I wondered what was so funny about it. Why wasn’t it funny before? What changed?
Two things. One is that wonderful line attributed to Anais Nin: "We don't see things as they are. We see them as we are."
And then there's this. Sometimes, we don't have a clue why things worked out as they did. We don't know the context. When that context gets blown wide open -- or even just cracked a little, for all that -- everything tilts, and it takes us a while to catch up with out own history.
I may have told you about my favorite aunt. I loved that woman. It was a bit of a shock to learn about five years ago that she went to the slammer for embezzlement. As you say, sometimes the past comes back when we least expect it. Sometimes it comes as memories, sometimes as new knowledge. But it always arrives.
"It always arrives." Eloquent, brief and absolutely true. Right now I'm at the tilted stage and the only thing keeping me on course, more or less, is having to prepare for an upcoming art exhibit. My life now revolves around printing photographs with little room for anything else.
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