Thursday, January 20, 2011

As Others See Us

Some years ago I went to an Italian festival in San Francisco. I'm not Italian, but being a Bay Area resident at the time, this yearly event featured great music, art, and of course...FOOD. The festival back then took place near Fisherman's Wharf on a roomy pier that featured both indoor and outdoor attractions.
After sampling some lovely garlic infused pasta and a robust red wine, I wandered into a nearby display of photographs. The history of the Italian community in San Francisco was on display. I found myself engrossed in a few of the photos more than others. Perhaps it was because of their size. They had been enlarged to life size and covered large portions of the makeshift walls used for their display.
One particular photo that caught my eye was of a 1926 milk truck. It beautifully captured all the detail of what was then a state of the art motor vehicle. I was fascinated by the tires, the bumpers, the detail of the upholstery, and the steering wheel. Then I noticed what appeared to be a group photo. On closer inspection it was just that. Only this group of people, about 15 in number were posing in front of a large wooden vat. The description next to the photo explained that the picture was taken near Daly City just after Prohibition began. The photo featured a wine maker selling his contraband to the local Italian community for use at their Sunday dinners and special occasions. One of the men in the photo had a burlap bag over his head. He was the winemaker! (Hiding his identity)
So I'm standing there looking deeply into these 15 faces that range from children to middle-aged folks, when two people join me in scanning the photo. A man who is at least 80 and a woman in her 50s are enjoying the historical photo as much as I am. The older gentleman begins to cry, slowly at first, and then breaks out in wailing sobs. I turn to the woman, who it turns out is his daughter, and ask what happened?
"He sees himself as a young man in this photo." She points to a dark swarthy young man standing in the rear almost hidden by a tree and says, that's my dad in 1927."
That moment has remained fresh in my mind. What must that have felt like? Was his reaction normal? What's normal? ow many emotions might be captured in seeing a former self? There is something about this experience that won't leave me alone. It's become a Zen Koan for me. Are we only who we are now? Are we always who we were? Sometimes, when I read an obituary I see pictures of the deceased at various ages. Seems somehow fitting. A more complete picture, I guess.
Seeing ourselves as we once were can be a profound experience.

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