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Produced & Maintained by Idaho Mountain Express, Box 1013, Ketchum, ID 83340-1013 
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Copyright © 2002 Express Publishing Inc.
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For the week of April 24 - 30, 2002

  Opinion Columns

‘Instant family’ 
defies imagination

Commentary by JoEllen Collins

Where, I thought, are the current generations of these lost families? Who let these precious records go?

In a rambling clapboard antique and bric-a-brac store in Pescadero, Calif., I came upon a display featuring old photographs. The bin beneath was jammed with family albums and pages from albums, some framed and arranged to show a generation or two of carefully posed elderly, middle-aged and young people dressed in Sunday best. Viewing the memorabilia left me with a profound sadness, not only because of my own sentimental inclinations, but because of the title of the nook: "Instant Family." I wondered whether anyone really purchased the photographs and used them as references, adopting the strangers as "family," perhaps inventing a history to match the images.

I doubt that many people need to acquire bogus family pictures, but the whole idea is astonishing. Not only was I sad at that prospect, but at the idea that these photos were once lovingly pasted in books, shown to friends and children. Once these craggy women stiffly sat in front of their husbands, stir-step offspring lined up on either side, and imagined these images being shared for many generations. Many of us hope for a bit of immortality, and certainly the family album was one way to achieve at least a more lasting record of one’s existence on earth.

Where, I thought, are the current generations of these lost families? Who let these precious records go? Was it the result of poverty, apathy, or the mobility of our society that found these treasures in alien territory? I can’t imagine giving up the treasured pictures I have of my mother and father. Although I did lose most of my family photos in a house fire, friends and family sent me copies of those they had. So I have recreated a family album from those snapshots and the few my father still possessed. I also managed to save my infant daughter’s baby book in the dash to leave my house..

I may thus have a special prejudice about the need to record and keep these images for future generations. I admit to melancholy when I look at a copy of the large family gathering for my cousin’s wedding in the ’60s. Most of the adults who smile from the photo are long gone, and even some of the younger faces caught on that happy day are no longer with our family. The brother of the groom died two years ago from brain cancer, and I still can’t imagine that I will not hear his gentle laugh. And, of course, those fresh faces have become lined and aged. There is reason for wistfulness. Nonetheless, I love that picture, the proud countenance of my mother in the middle, resembling a dowager empress. At that time, she was a few years younger than I am now, the matronly composure something I have yet to attain. My father is grinning , his huge and inclusive smile reminding me of the laughter that filled my childhood home. My then-young cousins are looking intently at the camera, their eyes filled with happiness and hope. At that time they would have no sense of the difficulties they would encounter in the years to come. I am proud that today I count them l among those people I admire so for their tenacity and mutual love, a loyalty that has led to a still-happy and fulfilled relationship. I am alone in the photo, in its own way a precursor of my lack of success in marriage. The other family members pose in equally revelatory ways.

One might say that spending time reminiscing over such pictures is a waste of the minutes we are given to live today. I disagree. I find it rewarding to be reminded of my past and of the loving moments I spent with my family. Sadness is combined with gratitude. As a young girl who was told I was adopted, I often lay in my bed at night and tried to imagine what my life would be like had I remained in the orphanage or been placed with a different family. I could never conceive of such a reality. I knew I belonged to that group—to Helen and Ted, my parents, to that larger circle of cousins and aunts and uncles. When my cousin did a family tree, he put my name right up there where it belonged—with the rest of my family.

No family is instant. We experience unbreakable ties and responsibilities and growth together in often muddled and complicated ways and the result is a group we call a family. Sometimes, even those born to (rather than, in my case, adopted by) the parents who raise them feel alien. We’re stuck with our heritages. Yet the great thirst one senses to reconnect with missing family members, the fodder of television reunions and Internet searches, reminds us of the connections we need so desperately.

Photos are only material, of course. My own baby book, designed by my creative Uncle Doc, was lost forever in the ashes of Malibu. However, my memories of his love are not. Nonetheless, I hope my family albums do not wind up in a bin somewhere and that I may deserve the honor of the next generations who might open the pages and remember me fondly.


The Idaho Mountain Express is distributed free to residents and guests throughout the Sun Valley, Idaho resort area community. Subscribers to the Idaho Mountain Express will read these stories and others in this week's issue.