Life Notes: A Portrait From The Past
Looking back at a new grandmother's gratitude
By Sally Friedman

I found the photo album wedged into a carton in our laundry room closet with the pillows, party trays and curtains that hadn’t worked out for our den. That carton also bore the single label “Hannah.”

It had been purchased on the first day or two of our first grandchild’s life, ready to be filled with the visual chronicle of her arrival. The original color was pink; the fabric was satin, I felt waves of guilt for being so careless with something so precious.

Hannah is now 25, and a Manhattan city woman with a certain urban toughness about her that comes with the territory. There’s not much trace these days of her tender, suburban roots. On her current turf, she leads and I humbly follow.

This is a woman who talks with that determined New Yorker air. The “protection” now flows in reverse, as Hanna, hurries me along, all the while watching over me. 

Yes, it’s weird. It’s also wonderful. Once I held her little hand in mine in places where I sensed I needed to. Now she does the same in reverse. I marvel at whatever happened to the years. 

And as I sat alone slowly turning the pages of that photo album, time and place grew blurry. This archaeological dig turned sentimental journey made me wish that time had not been such a thief.  

Had Hannah ever been that small? Had I ever been that young? The shock of a first grandchild was something I so much easier felt than could rationally explain. That’s because, mingled with the love, is the inescapable question: Why hadn’t I given her more of me? Why had I allowed sometimes foolish things to get ahead of time with her?

“Busy.” I hate that word. As my outside world begins to shrink, hers expands. She revels in her “trying-to-save-the-world” job. I find myself jealous of the demands of her life, worthy ones to be sure. But I want to beg time to slow down as Hannah hastens to seize the moments. We’re on opposite tracks.

And when my husband found me later that day sitting on the den floor clutching a faded satin photo album, he could also see that I’d been crying. Make that sobbing.

Yes, Hannah’s grandfather also has loved her – as she might have said – “to the moon and back.” It’s just that he has more control of his emotions.

As to the photos in an album – maybe the young can’t quite understand why I would get emotional over a book of old photos when pictures can now be right on our phones. But we grandparents understand. 

I moved from the album’s back to front, reversing chronological order. And after sifting through the nursery-school photos, the Halloween shots of a toddler with blonde curls and the seashore images of that tiny child meeting the mighty Atlantic, I was coming to the true pirate’s booty: the earliest photos.

The one that stopped me in my tracks – the one faded from the passage of time – was the visual record of my very first time alone with this new resident of Planet Earth, snapped by her mother – my daughter – before I practically pushed her out the door to go out and get some time off from new motherhood. It was so many years ago – and yesterday.

Then we were alone. Blissfully alone. This baby girl was lying in my arms, sleeping so soundly.

And for a blink of very precious, very remarkable time, it was just new Hannah and her new grandmother, a humbled, overwhelmed, slightly stunned woman.

I still have a powerful sense of how she fit perfectly into the hollow where my shoulder meets my neck, and how she nestled there, pink and warm, without stirring. 

I’d had three babies of my own, but this – this was the child of my child. It was all right there in that photo album. I could marvel at her miniature perfection, kiss her tiny fingers and her silky hair.

Sitting with Hannah on that afternoon in the middle of my life, and the beginning of hers, made me understand that here, in my arms, was renewal and hope of the most profound kind. 

And from now on, you can be sure the fading photo album will get the care and honor it deserves. Forever.

April 2019
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