The ends of the black and white picture are fraying like a newspaper held over a warm flame. It’s a photo of my grandfather in the early 1900s; he’s wearing a suit and tie with wide, round rims that encircle his inquisitive eyes. Thick eyebrows comfortably perch on top of them. I grip the frame tighter and feel the glass covering the old picture –cold and smooth– a protective shield dutifully keeping all out. I am his grandson nearly three quarters of a century later.
“He would always be reading,” my father mentions. “With a brass lamp long after we’d go to sleep, I’d peek outside my room and see him near a pile of books”. My eyes fixate on the frame and I think hard of what it might have been like being a practicing physician during a time without chest x-rays, fancy gadgets or EKGs. A time when the most sensitive test was the touch of your fingers across an abdomen and giant beeping boxes didn’t store a lifetime’s worth of information.
“It was harder back then you know,” I hear from behind me. “The whole town just had one doctor and he had no one else. That’s why he read so much, he had to.” I hear a touch of pride as light as rain on morning grass. Sometimes when elders swear things were tougher back in their era I feel resistance swell up in me. “It’s not easy now either,” I think. In this particular case I let the feeling rise and then fade because a third tide of awe is growing steadily behind it and I don’t mind being swept away.
The stories of my grandfather have always been around, since the beginning of time. Like tales told over crackling wood they cast a spell on me. I listen to every word, afraid I’ll miss the most important part, and have to ask someone else to fill me in. Are they true? I’m not sure. I do know know they have shaped why I wanted to become a physician for a long time. In times of doubt or uncertainty they were always there to gently push me forward into the clearing that lie ahead.
Something happens when you look upon a picture devoid of color. It almost takes on a timeless quality. As if what you have seen saw you long before, and now continues to stare as you turn and walk away. Perhaps sizing you up and seeing if you too can be timeless and fade slowly into black and white, kept alive through story and mentioned over flame.