Photographs, Mementos and Gratitude
By Heather Melton, UTO Staff Officer
One of my favorite things to see when I walk into a house is a gallery wall of photos, and I often wish there were time to stop to talk and ask questions about all the amazing images. I’ve seen all kinds, from family photos to photos of favorite spots, or a mixture of images. All these photos have been lovingly and carefully hung on the wall and tell something about the person who put them there. I have two such walls in our house, one that is a collection of photos of my children with important things (like icons) scattered in; the other is a wall of family photos. I pass both walls every day. Some days I walk by them without even looking at the photos; other days, I stop because I’ll see something, and it will evoke a lovely memory.
When I was serving as a parish priest, I would ask people to bring photos of their loved ones for All Souls’/Saints’ Day. I would create something with images of saints that might be important to the community and a space to display the photos people had brought. It was one of my favorite services of the year, because I would invite people to share something about their loved one with the congregation if they felt so called. It often felt like we were writing our own verse to “I Sing a Song of the Saints of God” for our community.
Recently, one of my children began to ask about some of the photos on the wall. One set in particular of my husband’s ancestors are kind of fun. There are two photographs from the early 1900s. It’s clear that each person gave a good deal of thought to the items they had with them in their portrait; and though married, they chose to have their photos taken separately. The man, whom my husband lovingly refers to as Old Man Tucker, has a bottle of whiskey in his photo, while the woman has a Bible. We don’t know a lot about this couple, so one of the girls decided to write a story about going back in time to give Old Man Tucker a phone so he could take photos and notes about what his life was like in Oklahoma in the 1900s. I loved her story and was grateful for the way his photo inspired her to write. I began to wonder what else we could give thanks for in these photographs around our house.
One afternoon, I took a pad of Post-it notes and started to write a word of gratitude for each image. I then asked my kids to take a turn. Suddenly our gallery walls turned into a gratitude piece and a conversation about our family. We put Post-its on National Park posters for the things we love about that place. We put Post-its on mementos. Nothing escaped our Post-it task, except the cat. Over the month that we did this, our house became a reflection of our values, of the things we are grateful for in the world around us and about each other.
October is a great month to try out this practice as a spiritual discipline leading up to All Saints; Day on Nov. 1. (If your family celebrates Día De Los Muertos, this is also a really great activity to do prior to the holiday.) You can give this as much time as you like. You can do it in a day, a week, or slowly over the month. My hope is that you’ll be reminded of why you took the time to frame and hang these photos and of all the blessings they represent.