Distant images

We were all once children. It seems something easy to forget. Leafing through a family photograph album, it can seem strange to look at pictures of people now long dead when they were young.

There are photographs of my grandparents in the 1920s. My grandfather was born in 1906, my grandmother in 1909, so they are teenage or in their early twenties. The people in the pictures are very different from those whom I remember.

The grandfather I remember was a quiet, reclusive man, sat at the fireside in a rocking chair. In the cupboard beside him he kept his stamp albums. Magnifying glass in hand, he would spend many hours poring over stamps from distant Commonwealth countries.

It is an image that seems far removed from the young man who stares out from a series of photographs.

In the album, he is a young man who is fashionably dressed and who is smiling and laughing in the company of friends. He is a young man who goes on outings,  a young man whose friends could afford to take casual snapshots.

In one picture, he is playing billiards. Someone has taken a picture of him at pocket level, from the other side of the table. My grandfather looks intent on the shot he is playing, indifferent to the presence of the photographer.

My grandmother gained a job in the Post Office savings bank when she was eighteen years old. Post Office jobs were gained through taking examination and she was proud of her job. Her colleagues included Hannie Collins, sister of Michael, the assassinated Irish Republican leader.

In later life, my grandmother confessed to a certain vanity in her younger years. Having a “permanent style” in her hair was a priority. “It might cost me a week’s wages,” she said, “but it was lovely having curls.”

The photograph of the fashionable young woman with her bobbed boyish hairstyle, fur collared jacket, and collar and tie is recognisably my grandmother, yet the image seems hard to reconcile with the person I knew.

Is there a point in life where we change from being one person into being another person who is very far from the image of the first? Does the original image endure beneath the exterior we assume? Is the process of change one that lasts through years and decades, or are there watershed moments when we move from being a person who would dress in a young way way to being a person who would dress in a much older way?

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