I Asked My Dead Grandpop for a Gift. He Delivered.
About two weeks ago, while my parents and I were visiting with my uncle in the basement of my dad’s family home, something randomly inspired my dad to pull open the drawer on an ancient, unused cabinet. Stuffing the drawer — caked with dust and spotted with mold—was a pile of old papers and photos. One of my grandmother around age 20. A few of her as a baby. And a giant class picture from a Sugar Notch High School trip to Washington, D.C. in the 1930s.
I was delighted at the discovery, particularly, of this latter photo. There near the center, squinting as he smiled into the sun, stood my grandfather at about 18 years old. The youngest picture I’d ever seen of him, it actually brought tears to my eyes; for ages, I’ve wished I could see a photo of my grandfather as a baby or as a little boy. This wasn’t quite what I was looking for, but I’d gladly take it; prior to that afternoon in the damp basement, I’d only ever seen photos of him as a 20-something and older.
Frankly, I don’t even know why it has felt so important to me over the years to see baby pictures of my grandfather. But it has. And after years of asking various relatives if they might have such photos (they don’t), and years of asking the aunt who reassures me that she has some down her basement (but never having been able to see them myself)… I’d all but given up hope. Note those words, however: all but.
Because not all hope was gone: there was apparently enough hope in me to whisper soundlessly to my grandfather while we milled around in that basement, “Please, Grandpop, help us find a picture of when you were small.” I didn’t know what he could do about that wish, or even what I was expecting, but I figured I might as well toss it out there into the invisible.
Ever since he passed more than 15 years ago, my grandfather’s spirit seems to have a thing with family photos. There was the first Father’s Day weekend after his death: I was getting milk out of the fridge for breakfast when the sight of his obituary, taped to the metal door for the past 9 months, suddenly made me cry all over again. In that moment, through my tears, I whimpered out an “I miss you, Grandpop.” Hardly an hour or two later, my brother and I received a strange, silent phone call, directly from a patient’s room, at the hospital where our grandfather had passed away; then, later that same weekend (possibly even that same day) a photo of my brother and me fell face-first off the TV in our living room. Pictures didn’t generally plummet spontaneously to the floor in that house, so we were startled—but my mother had declared, matter-of-factly, “Grandpop did that.” The house had been otherwise calm. We believed it. It felt like the most reasonable explanation.
Then, one night about 10 years ago, I can’t remember what had reminded me of my grandfather, but something did, just on the edge of sleep. I started to cry all over again there in my room, even though, by that point, he’d been gone about 6 years. What can I say? The pain of losing someone sometimes stings fresh again out of nowhere. And in those moments, there’s nothing to do but give voice to the love in your heart. So I whispered into the stillness of that evening, “I love you, Grandpop.” Or perhaps, “I miss you, Grandpop.” Or perhaps both.
A few days later, my aunt sent me a photo she’d just found: me as a little girl of 2 or 3 at my grandparents’ house. I was standing on my grandpop’s lap while he sat in a chair on the front porch, holding me. Looking at that photo (pictured here), I cried all over again—this time happy tears. Hadn’t I so recently whispered to him that I missed him and that I loved him? Well, here he was, and not just in any photo, but a photo where he was holding me. It felt like a hug. It felt like a gift.
It felt like he heard me.
I remembered all of this again yesterday afternoon, when my dad came into my room and handed me a small photo book. He wasn’t even sure what was in it, other than the fact that the top photo was a picture of his grandparents from 1968. I set my work aside for a moment to look, and I quickly filled with a sense of awe. I’d never seen most of these photos before. And among them, there was one of a little boy in knickers. Light hair, light eyes, squinting into the sun. The date on the back said 1930. This was my grandfather at age 8. The only son among five children.
“Dad, this is your dad!” I exclaimed. “He was only 8-years-old here!”
We continued flipping through the book. A few pages on, there was my grandfather as a baby—sparse, fly-away white-blond hair—sitting in the lap of his smiling mother. Then, toward the back of the book, a portrait of him almost-grown-up, looking straight into the camera, as a handsome 17-year-old boy. In this photo, he was smiling slightly, but even slightly was enough to reveal a peculiar family inheritance: the fact that, most of the time, the right side of his smile lifted more than the left. It’s a quirk that I have too, and I smile even bigger whenever I notice it on myself, rather than lamenting the asymmetry. I smile because I know I get it from him, and from his mother, and who knows which ancestors before us. My dad has it too. And my brother. I’m happy to have inherited such a “flaw” that isn’t a flaw at all.
The photo book held other gems, like a picture of a young man in a newsboy cap, crouching in a yard and holding a chicken—my great-grandfather, Juozas Radzvinavičius: Lithuanian immigrant, coal miner, whose name was later changed to “Joseph Rosell.” I’d never seen a photo of him so young either. There was, too, a studio portrait of a young lady dressed in a pearl headband and the fitted, ruffly fashions of the 1910s: my great-grandmother, Mamie Gudoski. Other photos featured my great-grandfather’s hunting dogs, or my grandpop’s police horses.
Touched, I recalled the barely-audible prayer I’d whispered to my grandfather hardly two weeks ago. He had more than delivered.
When I expressed how amazed I was that these photos had surfaced, my dad marveled, “I didn’t even know I had these pictures! I was just goin’ through my box, and they were in my box!”
And the funny thought crossed my mind that… maybe… maybe my dad didn’t have these pictures. Maybe the hand of heaven had put them there.
There are moments when a treasure—be it a sentimental or a practical one — arrives by complete surprise at a time too poignant, or under circumstances too unlikely, to be pure coincidence. In these moments I entertain the possibility that the heavens can move things around, maybe even materialize things, to ensure that we find the gift.
Did my father have these pictures, or were they moved from somewhere where they’d been lost? Did they even exist, or did they somehow materialize? I understand that he very possibly, maybe even probably, did have exactly these photos all along… but I still don’t think the timing of their appearance was pure happenstance.
Moments like these remind me of the sheer magic of our family’s love for us.
I was raised in a family where we were taught that it was perfectly acceptable to talk to our loved ones after they passed away. I was taught from childhood that our departed loved ones could still hear us, they still loved us, and we could even ask them for help with things—we could pray to them, so to speak, even if we didn’t call it “prayer” ourselves.
In a predominantly Christian society, I suppose it’s “weird” to pray to your ancestors… but it truly isn’t. I suspect that people have been doing this all over the world. For tens of thousands of years. And something so universal must surely be instinctive. And something so instinctive must surely speak to some deeper truth.
I’ve been lucky to have lived a number of experiences over the years, involving a number of departed loved ones, that have left me with the distinct impression that our ancestors (and that includes beloved aunts and uncles too!) are with us always. That they don’t forget us. That they never stop caring about us. That they’re happy to hear from us. And that they’re always happy to find ways to make their love known within our worlds. Happy to find ways to reassure us that we are still connected, even after all this time.
That we are still connected for all time.
I’ve told stories involving photographs here, but I know that some families’ photographs have been lost, or that perhaps certain relatives were never even photographed at all. I also know that, in the case of some ancestors, it’s not just photographs that are missing, but entire identities: there are people whose love or whose DNA we are made of, yet whose names are not even known. I know how lucky anyone is to be able to remember an ancestor by something like a photograph. Or even a name.
But even if your family’s keepsakes have been lost to history, and even if you don’t know who your ancestors are… consider that your souls had a sacred contract to be connected in the first place. Something forged on a divine plane. Their earthly experiences — all the joy and the pain, the gifts and the sacrifices, and everything in between—ultimately shaped precisely who they became. And those forces, in turn, shaped the events and the relationships that paved the way to you.
We are, because of who came before. We are born into a world shaped by everyone who predated us. And even if we don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it that way while we’re here, we’re all essentially moving this world towards its future, from the paychecks we work for so that we can feed our children, to the projects we endeavor to advance technologies, or heal communities, or inject more compassion into politics, or make art that we hope can leave a mark of kindness on all the minds that will encounter it and carry some tiny spark of its spirit forward.
We are all connected. And we are all, constantly, engaged in a labor of love for one another and for whoever will come here next.
So even if you don’t know your ancestors, don’t be intimidated to talk to them right now. If you know their names and you want to tell them “I love you” or “I miss you” — go ahead. If you don’t know their names, but you want to tell them “Thank you” — say that too. Don’t be afraid, either, to tell them what you admire about the way they spent their time on this earth… the qualities of theirs that you hope you can embody… the gifts of love that they wrought which you hope to be able to pay forward.
And what the heck, if you’re needing a pick-me-up or you’re longing for some kind of tangible token of their love, why not whisper your own prayer request? You want to know what your ancestors looked like, or where they came from, or how they lived, or what they believed in? Tell them so, and see what happens.