Reading and Writing and the Occasional Recipe: Affecting images

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Reading and Writing and the Occasional Recipe

Affecting images

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Recently I went to a benefit dinner for the incomparable organization Facing History and Ourselves, which was founded by my friend, the incomparable Margot Stern Strom. Attendees were asked to name an image that has had a lasting impression on them. There were plenty of iconic ones to choose from and people mentioned the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, the second plane hitting the World Trade Center, images from the ‘60s civil rights struggles in the South, RFK’s funeral train. This being Boston, someone even mentioned the Red Sox's curse-breaking moment.

Along with all the public images I thought about was a private one, a photograph that is a touchstone for me. I described it this way in a piece I wrote about my late friend Adele Margolis:

“I have an old photograph, a picture of a surprise party given for (my aunt) Alice. It is during World War II and she is about to move from Philadelphia to Washington where her husband will be stationed in the Navy and she will work in a government office. Adele is there, with all the friends and relatives and everyone is smiling, even the ones whose husbands are already overseas, even my father who has not yet gone to Italy and been wounded.

“At the moment of the photograph there is a kind of glamour about them, in their peep-toe platform shoes, drapey print dresses, and upswept hairdos that look deliciously retro now. Certainly no one was wearing anything expensive and probably many of the dresses were mended, but there is an elegance about them. They look unselfconsciously like grown-ups. I can't imagine any of them spending time wondering about the state of some celebrity's marriage or asking, "does this dress make me look fat?" They have dignity. Not in some stuffy artificial way, but they seemed to have a sense of themselves as people with a purpose. People who looked for the best of what a far-from-perfect world was offering them and who tried to make something beautiful, something large of their lives.”

What that photograph says to me is that we have only this one time, this finite moment we are given, and that we, at least to some extent, get to choose how to use it. We can fill our time with things that will have little consequence, even to us, in the long run. Or, as Adele and Alice were wise enough to see from a very early age, we can consciously create our lives. They both created art but they also both created deep, rich relationships that nurtured them and those around them through long and sometimes hard years. What keeps them in my mind as role models is their insistence on not frittering their time away, but in using it thoughtfully for pleasure, for greater understanding of the world, for being human in the fullest and best possible sense.

They might have been astonished that I hold them as role models. They didn’t think they were doing anything unusual or heroic, just living their lives the best way they could. But that’s exactly the thing that shines out from that photograph, that continues to be a beacon for me.

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