Shared online, photos rekindle family stories, connections

Gail Appleson is a writer for Armstrong Teasdale LLP and freelancer who lives in St. Louis. “Dor to Dor,” is an intermittent Jewish Light series looking at various aspects of “grown-up” life and generational connections through the lens of Jewish writers living in the St. Louis area.      If you are interested in contributing to Dor to Dor, email [email protected].

By Gail Appleson

After my mother passed away, I found two small black-and-white photos in her bedside nightstand. One was a portrait of Mom, probably when she was working as a nurse in New York City in the 1940s, and the other was with my father, most likely early in their marriage. 

Since I’d been trying to think of ways to share memories of my parents with brother’s children who live in New York and Pennsylvania, I thought I could have the photos scanned and turned into jpegs. And because I’m Facebook friends with my niece and nephews, I figured I could post the photo of my parents on their anniversary followed by the photo of my mother on her birthday.

The scanning and Facebook posting process had at least two unexpected results. The first was that I was absolutely startled when I saw the photos enlarged on my computer screen. The images showed two people I’d never really seen before. These beaming young adults were my parents before I was born. My father looked absolutely jaunty in his white suit, white shoes, straw hat and mischievous grin.

And my mother, well, she was quite a beauty. If it hadn’t been for her eyes, I don’t think I would have even recognized her. But as she looked straight at me from the computer screen I saw in those eyes the steadfast inner strength and unwavering determination that I had come to know so well.

The second surprise came from the responses those pictures generated after they were posted. While my goal was to share the photos with my niece and nephews, I received dozens of comments from friends and relatives across the United States and in Europe. 

It seemed these Facebook photographs had given my parents a new cyber kind of life. Not only had they now been introduced to new people, but quite honestly, I felt like I had also just this met this young couple for the first time. It made me think of the lines in the Amidah that praise G-d for giving life to the dead.

I’ve always puzzled over those lines. Do they mean that the deceased will be revived in Messianic times? Or is this a reference to something else? Over the last few months I’ve asked a number of friends how they interpret these lines and their answers have ranged from the revival of trees and flowers in the spring to just being able to wake up in the morning.

As for me, I take comfort in believing these lines mean that the souls of my loved ones exist somewhere else . . . perhaps in another dimension that none of us can imagine. Of course, there’s no way to really prove it, but this feeling that I am connected to my parents’ souls provides me with a source of strength and courage as well as a sense of peace. 

I ran this past my friend, Jennifer Schwesig, who said the lines in the Amidah make her think of a story called “Hovering above the Pit,” from the book “Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust” by Yaffa Eliach. 

In the story, Jewish inmates at the Janowska concentration camp were ordered to jump over a large pit or be shot to death. The pit is very deep so they are meant to fall to their deaths. One secular Jew had become friends with Rabbi Israel Spira of Bluzhov. The secular Jew thought they should sit and await the bullets, but the Rabbi said they should jump because they would be obeying G-d’s will. 

So they jumped, and miraculously, made it across. The secular Jew asked the rabbi how he had survived. 

The rabbi replied, “I was holding onto my ancestral merit. I was holding onto the coattails of my father, and my grandfather, and my great-grandfather of blessed memory.” He then asked how his friend had made it across.

“I was holding onto you,” the secular Jew responded.

Jennifer said she felt the story was about connecting the past and the present:  People who have passed on are kept alive by those who remember them. Whether it’s thinking about deceased loved ones in times of need or being reminded of them in a Facebook photo, they are revived by our thoughts and emotions. 

As I was thinking about Jennifer’s interpretation, I learned that Ilana, the wife of my oldest nephew Mitch, had given birth to a baby girl. They had named her Talia Malka, after my mother. 

As I gazed at the baby’s photo on Facebook, I began to cry because I couldn’t tell Mom about her beautiful great granddaughter. But then suddenly my tears gave way to goose bumps because I felt in my heart that somehow she knew. 

So baby Talia Malka, I wish you faith, strength and determination and may you always hold tight to your great grandmother’s coattails.