The other day there was one of those nice little stories about a group of American school friends who, on a camp as teenagers, decided to take a group photo of themselves. So far so trivial, millions of such photos have been taken over the years, billions perhaps. What made this one special was that they decided to take another one five years later in exactly the same place, positions and poses. And another five years later and so on. I forget how many they had taken but they are well into middle age now.
There was a similar story a few months ago. A young married couple posed for a photo. Again, same position 5 years later with couple of small children. Five years on, children grown plus another baby. And so on and so on until, the original couple getting middle-aged, their children appeared with partners, then their own children, and so on.
Both these sequences are the kind of thing that makes you ask yourself, plaintively, “Why didn’t I think of that?” The kind of thing that makes you want to pay a Ghost-of-Xmas-Future visit to your 14-year-old self and whisper in his ear, as he sleeps, “Write in your diary. Yes, it’s boring. Yes of course you will remember every detail of your life 50 years from now. But, just in case, by some mischance, you don’t, WRITE IN YOUR DIARY EVERY DAY NOW”. Not sure that Time Travel is going to be invented quite soon enough for me to do that and see my almost empty 1959 diary magically fill up with detailed daily records, but fingers crossed.
Perhaps a magic mirror might help. I have a very old bathroom mirror. Nothing special, just a plain but rather heavy wooden frame. Began life in my family at least 100 years ago in my newly wedded grandparent’s house in England. But may well have been earlier than that, passed down from one or two previous generations. People did in those days, hand on pieces of furniture to get a new young couple started in life. These days no one wants hand-me-down furniture, preferring cheap new rubbish from a chain store. But I digress.
The mirror is a little worse for wear, the frame bruised, scratched, stained, the silvering breaking up a little. But it has done a lot of work, covered a lot of ground – from a mining town in the north of England, to an outback shack in southern Western Australia, to several houses in Perth, then over other side of continent to several houses. Getting old and tired after all that travelling. As am I. But I digress, again.
Wherever it was the mirror was seeing an ever-changing passing parade of different faces. The coal stained faced of a miner home after a day underground, the same face later with a soldier’s cap on. A young woman holding her son up to see his face, her’s already careworn. Later another baby, chortling happy as he sees himself once but never again. Then a little girl, standing on tip toes to brush her hair. Then a big boy combing his hair, or not bothering, thinking, like The Fonz, it was already perfect, off to a dance.
Later the same faces but the mirror reflecting a different scene with a harsher light, hanging outside a shack in an alien landscape, faces tired and dirty from farming in the dust, or the smoke of bushfires. Then into somewhat more civilised surroundings, a bath reflected in it for the first time, also a small water heater, warmed by wood chips and old newspapers to produce sooty water. Same faces continue, all growing older, then a new one arrives. At first in work clothes, his face sunburnt, then in the slouch hat of the Australian Army in World War two Later another mother is holding up another baby to see his own reflection, and eventually he is big enough, standing on tip toes to comb his own hair in imitation of Elvis Presley. And so on.
The magic? Well, I’d have liked (I think!) a magic mirror that took a snapshot every time someone looked into it over the last 100 years. Then turned it into a movie that you could run to see your family story unfold before your eyes. Would provide the backbone, the spine, on which to hang all the other photos and letters and documents. Sand running through an hourglass, or a centuryglass, doesn’t just move fast, but ieaves little for you to get hold of, runs through the fingers like it did on an idle day at the beach, in, say, 1911, or 1931, or 1951, or 1971. The more you try to hold on to it the faster it disappears. A magic mirror could fix those days of our lives into a permanent record.
Oh and it would prevent, perhaps, days, as “The Zen of Genealogy” (Beth Uyhar) describes, of lying down, banging your head on the floor calling out, in a loud plaintive wail “Why didn’t I ask Grandma when I had the chance?!? Why? WHY?!?”