Does everyone have a plan for achieving immortality? I think so. At least most people have given it some thought. A writer hopes to publish her book. A swimmer trains for a world record. A grandfather cradles his grandson in his arms.
When I was far from home during college, I used to check my parents’ books out of the library and keep them in my dorm room. Both my father and step-father were academics. One went to graduate school in New Orleans and Chapel Hill, the other in Manhattan and Newark. Their writings could be found among the dense library stacks of Penn in Philadelphia. When I missed my family, I’d read the books’ acknowledgements. Written during different eras of my childhood, they both included my mother. I knew if I returned to campus in fifty years for a reunion, my parents would still be there waiting for me on the shelves.
By happenstance, my young children have already secured small placeholders in history’s written record. Once we were at a park on a beautiful autumn day and a photographer from the university paper snapped some pictures. On page 6 of the next day’s Cavalier Daily, my daughter appears. There she’ll always be eleven months old, playing in the leaves.
Whatever one’s plans for immortality, sometimes posterity has a scheme of its own. If my descendants one day go looking for me, they’ll probably find this first:
It’s the illustration that accompanies an article I wrote for Slate in 2006 about postpartum depression. If the character’s hair were a little bigger and the numbers green, it would be a dead ringer for me.
But my great-grandchildren may never know to look for me here,
in the little landscape frame on the bottom left. Until last week, I didn’t even know I was there, at Jack Fry’s restaurant in Louisville. A family member was eating there and made the discovery. With me in the photograph are my mother, step-father, brothers, and step-sister. We’re posing for our Christmas card on a dock in Popham, Maine, c.1984. Around us on the restaurant wall are photos of the “bookmaking, bootlegging” Jack Fry, who owned the restaurant from 1933 to 1976, when it operated as a luncheonette. In the mid-eighties, the restaurant changed hands and became a local culinary hotspot. My parents had a standing date there on Friday nights. For them it was a much-needed escape from parenthood and cooking. They knew the whole staff by name–the servers, cooks, bartenders, and owners. Thus, the Christmas card.
There’s something about turning up in an unexpected place that makes me feel inexplicably bona fide. Maybe it’s the beveled mat that’s yellowed with time, blending my family’s portrait with the sepia-toned gamblers and thoroughbreds all around us. But more than that, I think it’s because I didn’t have to earn my place on the wall. It was just granted. Like forgiveness. And grace.