the way to let go

September 30th, 2012

There are few names and no dates on the photos. Together, they span fifty years.  The oldest are bound in a half-torn album tied with a limp shoelace.

The pictures begin with my lithe and lovely grandmother, no more than a teenager, posed alluringly against a tree trunk in a grassless yard. In another, she has arranged herself on top of railroad tracks. Here she is, a poor girl wearing new clothes, and her hair is marcelled. There are pictures of other young women, her friends or sisters; they take turns wearing a fur-trimmed coat. This is their dress-up; these are their aspirations. They have taken pictures to show how desperately they want to get out from the pictures. Cross the tracks. Leave home.

Oh, how you know the feeling.

Many pictures have been ripped from the pages. Glued to the front, as if a new title, the first page remade when the album filled, is a photo labeled “Jim Jimmie Erma,” a family portrait. My father, little Jimmie, looks about four years old. His father holds the boy close in his thick arms, taking responsibility. My grandmother stands alongside wearing the coat and traveling hat. They are squinting into the daylight.

From this vantage point, I can see the secrets and scars in their unblemished faces. They confess to me of future crimes and punishments. Even as an innocent, my father looks exactly as I feared him, a fact that strikes me as peculiar only when I consider that my daughter will see her own hysterical mother in my cherub-cheeked baby pictures. The mother she will misjudge and misunderstand, the mother she might reject and revile, until one day she doesn’t.

But I am going to erase all that—everything I think I see—and give them a fresh start. I’m going to give them what I would if they were my own children, or if they were me. Because they are me. I’m going to give them love.

What if you could erase every shadow you think you see, every mar, every flaw? There would be no lasting injury or disfigurement. No enemy, no victimhood. No lash, no shame, no hiding place. No permanent pain because there would be no place to contain it. Would your story end up the same? Would there even be a story?

The father cups the son’s hand in his. The mother places her hand over both. She looks older in this photo, poised in this new place, made mature as a companion to the others. They are so young and fine, daring and destitute. They have no business doing what they are about to do. They have no idea what they are putting in motion. They are putting all of this in motion.

My grandfather’s mouth is formed as if speaking – interrupting the frozen pose to say the words only I can hear: “Let’s get going.”

Yes, I’m ready, let’s.

This is where the truth begins. It begins when you leave behind everything you know. On a brisk and clear day, somewhere on an unmarked road: people without a past, headed toward the sun, showing us the way to let go.



  1. Leaves me speechless — and reminds me of a poem that I can’t recall the name of — or the author — but it’s on the tip of my tongue, and when I remember I will come back. In the meantime, this will haunt me.

    Comment by Elizabeth Aquino — September 30, 2012 @ 9:12 am

  2. Just wanted to say I’m a big fan. I rarely comment but always like your posts for the food for thought.

    Comment by Lindsay — September 30, 2012 @ 10:54 am

  3. Without a past. Yes. Let’s.

    Comment by Jena — September 30, 2012 @ 6:13 pm

  4. oh I wish I could let go. I tell myself I’m trying. At least there’s that.

    Comment by Amy — October 1, 2012 @ 2:13 am

  5. Really beautiful writing! Thank you – I’m a fan by way of Rachael at the variegated life. Often read, frequently ponder, but (until now) never commented.

    Comment by Melissa — October 1, 2012 @ 8:53 am

  6. Thank you for stepping through the “gate,” Melissa.

    Comment by Karen Maezen Miller — October 1, 2012 @ 10:06 am

  7. As we approach parenthood we have all these ideas of how we’ll be different. I’m different because….”I won’t” “I’ll never” “I will”. All of which is based on those who came before us. And they based theirs on those who came before them. And in that way we are all the same. You illuminate such profound truths in your writing.

    Comment by Sarah Stanton — October 2, 2012 @ 8:24 am

  8. This is what I have been doing in small ways for a few years now — loving those who came before, through and past the trauma since. It is profoundly healing, and I do not think it ignores what happened, but simply loves through it. Thank you for writing about this.

    Comment by Laura M. — October 3, 2012 @ 6:21 am

  9. wow, beautiful. Makes me think of the photos I have looked through that belong to my grandmother. I always look at those little faces and think about the fact that they had no idea the future ahead of them. A future for them, that for me is now a past. Thank you for this.
    Sincerely, Katie

    Comment by katie m. berggren — October 3, 2012 @ 9:16 am

  10. There’s a box of old family photos, framed, sitting on a shelf in the closet. I don’t even remember what’s in the box, so it’s clear the pictures had lost a great deal of importance. Well, that’s what I thought, until I decided to declutter the house. I opened the box, thinking I’ll toss the photos and give away the frames. But my reaction was “Oh, I forgot about that picture of my brother and sister when they were five. Look how cute they were. How awful…the things that happened to all of us after that sweet moment.” “Oh, I really love this picture, my hair was perfect then.” “Maybe I’ll put all these pics on my facebook page.” That didn’t happen, but I got to have a good long look at attachment.

    And then, about a year later, I opened that box and tossed out half those pictures without a second thought. My emotional reactions had been erased. The pain was gone. There was no feeling of victimhood. Who in the world was that woman with the perfect hair?

    It’s been several months since I tossed out that batch. I’m still decluttering the house. Karien’s post has inspired me. I’m going to open that box right now and see if I (and the people in the photos) have been given another fresh start.

    Comment by Dawn Downey — October 5, 2012 @ 7:50 am

  11. Today is Thanksgiving. Reading your words is the balm I need to soothe the heartache with which I awoke. A fractured familial relationship that I’ve sensed would heal with me simply wiping the slate clean and starting fresh. To go in and excavate its roots, as defined by my perspective, only embroils and entangles me and my heart,like a Gordian Knot. Unwholesome thinking…a same old story line that guarantees a same old reaction. I have a few weeks to sit with this until I journey to see them…a chance put into motion something fresh and new. Thank you.

    Comment by Katharine — October 8, 2012 @ 7:13 am

  12. This is so lovely. I love the way you SEE… and then help us to do the same.

    Comment by Jocelyn Lane — November 1, 2012 @ 4:58 am

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