I was commissioned to write this a few years ago for the Central European House of Photography in Bratislava (and thank you to all the photo...
Tuesday, 6 November 2012
Sometimes photography seems abstract, but then something happens that makes it concrete. In the last couple of weeks I have been looking at family album pictures from different groups of relatives.
The one family album I haven't looked at is those of my wife, Katherine's family. Perhaps there's a reason for that. Katherine's parents originally came from Yugoslavia. They moved to Canada in 1947 after spending two years in a refugee camp run by the British in Austria - they met and got married there, in a dress made of scraps of cloth donated by other refugees. It was a camp where the rations amounted to only 600 calories, where the impetus was for the refugees to return to Yugoslavia. One of my wife's uncles did return, but was never heard of again. He was shot.
Katherine's parents, Elizabeth and Ivan, eventually got a patch of land on Leighland Road in Burlington, Ontario. They built a garage and that was their home for a couple of years before Ivan had finished building the adjoining house. They lived on that street with other refugees from eastern Europe. They had children, six in total, and the house soon got too small. But still they lived there. Ivan worked as a janitor, Elizabeth as a housewife (and occasionally as a cleaner).
Initially, the house was bordered by orchards and farmland, but gradually highways, stripmalls and car-lots became the surrounding environment. It was the wrong side of the railway tracks that run a little to the north. Elizabeth always wanted a bigger house with a fancy kitchen and modern decor, but she never got it. Instead she continued to live in the house after her husband died. Then she had a fall and had to be moved into a home where she lived, increasingly dependent on others, until she died last Saturday night.
I think it was a relief in some ways that she died, because she wasn't independent and it wasn't the way she wanted to live, but at the same time it was a massive shock. Not because of the death, but because of the passing of an era, the end of a living history. You can keep history alive in various ways , but when the person who witnessed it goes, it does spell the end of a chapter. It doesn't mean we should forget it, but there is still some part of a time that has gone. Things have moved on.
But things are also preserved and the family album does this admirably. It's a shorthand of memory, of history, of an edited and at times idealised past, where certain things are hidden and certain things taken away - sometimes in retrospect. Even so, we still look at it quite objectively as something quite factual.
But Elizabeth didn't have those old photos, so I wonder how she will be remembered. Just as words are sometimes better than photographs, so is food. I remember her Slovenian cooking, her gingerbread, her puddings, her cakes and so does my wife.
So rather than going through old photographs, I think there will a little bit of baking going on in Burlington, of strudel, potica and things that I cannot even begin to spell ( how do you spell kifudgka). And with the baking, a lot of memories will be raised and a life will be replayed and tears be shed. But at the end of it all, amidst all the sorrow, there will also be some joy, that around her at the visitation and the funeral will be her children, six of the kindest, loveliest and most generous people I have ever had the pleasure to have known. And there will be their children and their children's children - and they are all lovely.And I think that when she was surrounded by her family this summer, at the 90th birthday party that was held for her in her oldest daughter's garden, at the lunches and meals she was wheeled out of the home for, and I think of the relish with which she polished off the store-bought potica ('not as good as mine') or anything sweet, I think Elizabeth knew that for all the trauma and disappointment of parts of her life, the legacy that she left behind was really something special.
In other words, who needs the photographs? Food, family and the smell of potica are what matter.