For eons humans had only the memory of the faces of those who have passed away. One could know only the faces of one’s parents, possibly one grandparents, extremely rarely a great-grandparent, and no more. With the passing of generations, faces were lost in the mist of time.
The urge to pass along the image of loved ones may have first met a method for doing so in the caves of Europe some 27,000 years ago. The development of oil based portrait painting some 1400 years ago provided a technology that could realistically capture a face and pass that image down across generations.
In the 15th century oil painting migrated from wooden panels to canvas in Europe. The renaissance would bring an exponential increase in the number of faces retained for posterity. No longer were only the faces of gods, kings, and saints committed to physical media, now the elite could have their visage recorded.
Photography would exponentially increase again the number of faces that could be recorded and retained across time. One no longer needed to be elite to have one’s face remembered.
Yet whether charcoal on cave rock or Polaroid, the images only stare at us. They are static images devoid of words. We can look at the images lovingly, projecting our own memories onto the portrait.
A young mother of elementary school age children passed away here. Her social media page retains not only her image of her hugging her children, but also her comments on those pictures. Her conversational interactions with family and friends. In the exclamations and the laughing out loud she seems so vividly alive. Posts from but a day before her sudden passing away that are silly and fun.
Viewing those images with their words brings a sense of intensely painful loss. Rather than being left looking at a static image and only our own memories, we are faced with the words and thoughts of the young mother. We see her joys and her frustrations. Instead of being lost in our own reveries, we are filled with her thoughts and her reactions, with her memories.
As painful as those words and images are for me, how much more emotionally difficult are they for her intimate family? Can they ever return to social media without continuously re-encountering those images and words, and then reliving the extreme sense of loss. Social media becomes an emotional mine field.
My memories of my own father are only those in my head and a few pictures of him. Of his words and conversations with friends I have essentially nothing. I can look back at a man who was larger than life for me, a figure who inspires me to this day, and who loved me unconditionally. I feel that love and his presence in my life. There are no social media conversations to contradict my own mind’s version of my past. What would it be like to have a life time’s worth of comments and conversations?
My own children may indeed have exactly that – comments and conversations – available to them long after I am gone from this life. My foibles and inconsistencies forever giving me clay feet instead of the rosy golden glow of selective memory.
I can only hope that the pictures and the words bring them comfort and not pain, that they will be encouraged and sustained by who I was and my love for them. And while I plan to be here for many more years, I am keenly aware of how suddenly we can lose someone out here no matter how apparently healthy they might seem.
Faces and words, even videos, bringing new ways to be reminded of our losses and for that loss to be remembered across the generations. May the last thing out of this modern Pandora’s box be the hope that this new manner of storing vivid memories brings also comfort and love.