Robert Haydon Jones and Matthew Levine

Matthew Levine

Inspiration piece

A Scrapbook of Loving Kindness
By Robert Haydon Jones


Jimmy O’Hara had been living comfortably enough for an old guy in the Digital Age for quite a long time. Years back, he had migrated from his father’s Smith-Corona, which he had used to write words for money since he was 12, to an IBM Selectric. And then to a Mac. From then on, every three years, his wife, Anne, bought him the newest Mac with all the bells and whistles.

His wife — one of those creatures referred to as an “Early-Adopter –- was always among the very first for cool Apple stuff. i-phone, i-pod, i-pad –- on and on it went.

Like it or not, Jimmy was paying for it, and Anne was immersed in it. But just when he thought he was in the swim (and somewhat proud of it) the Digital World morphed into a new age – and for a while, Jimmy was left behind.

He e-mailed his kids and grandkids and only rarely got a response and the e-mails he got were usually very short and very simple and over-polite — like when people talk LOUD and SLOW to an old person.

After a while, he asked Anne about it. She explained it sympathetically. Jimmy’s children and grandchildren hardly ever e-mailed any more. They texted mostly and also talked to each other and the world through social network sites like Facebook.

So, Jimmy climbed on board Facebook. He made it pretty much a one-way street.  He kept his profile to the bare minimum – and rarely posted. But now he could open that portal and almost literally look at the lives of his seven children and eleven grandchildren as they unfolded – often nearly in real time.

T’was a wonder for him, but for most people it was no big deal. Indeed, most of his family posted on a daily basis. They seemed to have an altogether different concept about privacy than he and Anne did.

Jimmy remembered people forgetting about the camera in just a couple of hours when he was shooting documentaries way back when. It was another form of the willing suspension of disbelief that storytelling and romance depends on. The Facebook presence reminded him of the slogan the DOD had posted in PX’s, “Part of your benefits, part of your life.”

Jimmy didn’t look at Facebook every day. The fact was that in some queer, very old-fashioned way, he often felt as if he was peeping at these lives even though he knew they wouldn’t see it that way. There were other reasons he didn’t look that much. Certainly, almost all of the pulses of life that they posted to the world had absolutely nothing to do with him. The truth was often when he did look — his children and grandchildren seemed further away and less interested in him than ever. That hurt.  Even when he didn’t take it personally.

So, Jimmy was caught off-guard when his eldest son, Mickey, began to post jpegs from a trove of hundreds of old photos he had found in the attic of the old O’Hara family home that he now lived in. Five generations of O’Hara’s had lived in that house. The photos covered more than a hundred years.

There were black and whites of Jimmy’s maternal grandparents (and his great grandmother) that went way back. It was startling; Jimmy had never seen their faces or their bodies young.

There were sepia colored shots of his parents courting – and professional compositions of them getting married. There were candid baby pictures of Jimmy (he was the first of seven) and a steady pictorial record of the family’s expansion.

Day after day, there were fresh posts – and Jimmy reluctantly reviewed them all.  It was as if he were using a periscope on a Time Machine. He watched his grandparents and uncles and aunts and his parents age and disappear.

He watched himself and his brothers and sisters and cousins grow from babies to kids to adolescents to young adults  — and then he watched himself married again to the wife who had divorced him more than three decades back.

Then his children appeared and he watched them grow from babies to kids to adolescents to young adults as he aged along with them and, like it or not, made ready to disappear.

It was eerie and disturbing for Jimmy to watch all these lives flash before his eyes.

The best way for you to understand this is for you to take a moment now and think about how you would feel if you were suddenly served candid shots of your family’s life over the generations – featuring weddings, christenings, and birthdays – and most of all — full family Holiday gatherings. Fifty Thanksgivings. Fifty Christmases. Fifty Easters. How would it hit you?

Well, it hit Jimmy hard. The moment he saw a shot of his long-dead father (with Jimmy and his two younger brothers when Jimmy was ten) Jimmy felt such a pang that he grunted. His Dad had tried so hard to be a good Dad in spite of everything. One look and Jimmy was re-connected with his Dad’s old sorrow. And his Mom’s.

It was “love at first sight” for them, but from then on, the lovers and their children were enmeshed in involutional, mutual, failure as individually and collectively they desperately chased that magical romantic high. No wonder, Jimmy had assiduously avoided looking back!

Mickey was posting twenty, sometimes thirty, jpegs a day. He was excited to be serving all this past to the family — and to the future generations.

Jimmy was totally surprised by the big group shots of the family holiday gatherings. Everyone seemed to be genuinely happy. All Jimmy could remember was sadness.

He took a careful look at himself in an Easter group shot done when he was twenty, about six months before he got married. He was amazed he was so handsome then. And strong looking. He had a star athlete’s body. And a Marine’s physique.

“How come I felt so sad and miserable when I looked so good?” he wondered.

Mickey told him that he and his brother, Sean, had been pleasantly surprised by some of the happy group shots they were in –- it confirmed their dim memories that there had been good times before the divorce. Mickey told Jimmy that the youngest brother, Connor, who was seven when the marriage broke down, was telling everyone he had no happy memories from then and still didn’t.

Mickey looked again. Hell, Connor looked happy enough. He was smiling in nearly every shot.

All the faces were mostly happy.  Jimmy was glad to see them all again, like they had just come back for a visit. “Great to see you again!” But even so, when Jimmy looked at the photos, he found himself pushing back heavy sorrow and yearning.

Happy sorrow? The Easter and Fourth of July and Labor Day group photos whacked Jimmy especially hard. Each of these photographs suffused him with a torrent of yearning that made his heart leap as if he had just seen a beautiful young woman he had loved and lost long ago.

The family trooped out doors to pose for these sunny holiday commemoratives. They gathered in back of the house. Behind the group cluster, the back field sparkled with raw light. The field ran on for twenty acres out from the O’Hara house and up Minute Man Hill to the horizon.

Jimmy remembered waiting for the farmer to come and mow the hay so they could continue to use the field for baseball. He came twice a summer. Jimmy and his brothers would stack two or three hay bales and use them as a backstop until the farmer picked them up.

He remembered the scent of the new mown hay. And playing baseball on a field  that seemed to run forever in this boundless meadow within earshot of the sea.  The sunlight had a sea-splashed sparkle.  Jimmy could see it plainly in the photos. It was like the light great artists sought to capture. There it was in the back field!

The field was gone now. Now there were houses and yards chock-a-block against each other on half-acre plots. “If you lived there now, you would never know there had even been a field,” Jimmy thought.

A couple of days later, Jimmy told his youngest sister, Penny, that the Facebook photos had clobbered him with a unique sort of yearning and sorrow – and it wasn’t about the family. “Oh, I know what it is,” she said. “It’s the field. Wasn’t it beautiful!”

So, thanks to Mickey, Jimmy’s past life was passing before his eyes (and anyone else in the world that Mickey had “friended.”)  All this time, Jimmy had been determined not to look back. And he hadn’t. Now he had seen himself and his family through the years, down the generations.

Every time he looked, he felt a yearning.  At first, he was amazed he could stand it.  Or that he would want to look again. Ever. But after a time, he began to realize that the yearning and the sorrow he had feared all his life were survivable. And that there was no shame in sorrow and yearning.

Oh, he missed these people! He missed himself! It was so sad there had been sorrow and loss. But he had been blessed to be part of this family. How much sadder his memories would be if there had been no family, no field.

Suddenly he thought of Molly Simpson.

Thirty years ago, walking back from lunch to his studio in the village, Jimmy came on a knot of people clustered around three big wheelbarrows in the yard of one of the beautiful, 18th century, salt boxes in the “Historic District” of town.

The house belonged to Molly Simpson, a tiny, shy, old spinster, who had been the bookkeeper, for the Town Library for as long as anyone could remember. Her great grandfather had built the house. After her mother died, Molly had lived there by herself for decades. Now she had died at age 87 – and the only relative was a second cousin in California.

The house was being sold. The furniture and bric-a-brac had already been auctioned and tag sold. The wheelbarrows had the remnants, which were destined for the dump. They were free for the taking.

Jimmy reached in and pulled out an outsized leather scrapbook. It had at least two hundred pages.  He figured the ornate leather-bound covers might be worth reusing to encase his own scrapbook.

So he walked the five blocks to his studio lugging Molly Simpson’s scrapbook. He opened it up on the big presentation table in his conference room.  The first page had been cut out from a magazine. Actually, it was a Saturday Evening Post cover from 1942. Norman Rockwell’s painting of a family at table for Thanksgiving.

Jimmy leafed on through. Every page of Molly Simpson’s scrapbook had a photo or a painting of a family gathering. They had been cut out of magazines. It appeared she had added one every holiday season for more than fifty years. It was unbearable.

Jimmy didn’t have the heart to pull the contents out of the scrapbook. He walked outside and around back of his studio. One of the rubbish cans was empty. Jimmy took the scrapbook and dropped it in the can. It made a thunk as it hit the bottom. It reminded Jimmy of the thunk he had heard when they had lowered his father’s coffin all the way down in the grave after the service.

“Well,” he thought, ‘‘That’s the end of Molly Simpson’s scrapbook.” He envisioned a silver coin dropping into a pond or a puff of smoke rising from an extinguished candle.

He thought, “It’s as if she had never existed. I’ll never have to think of her again.”


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  1. Posted March 4, 2011 at 9:20 pm | #

    Another fine sketch by a fine writer. He captures the pain of reminiscence and raises the serious question of whether we really need all this technology and whether it brings us closer or pushes us farther apart–as our lives become more public, we become more isolated behind the technology.

  2. Posted March 6, 2011 at 2:44 am | #

    Codgers always complain about the trivial pursuits of the young. In the case of Facebook, we are right: it is strictly the old phedinkus. (Thank you, Damon Runyon)

  3. Posted March 9, 2011 at 4:36 am | #

    Using “T’was” in a post about not understanding the digital age just about says it all. Although I’m right there with you. I’ve missed the real boat myself. We grew up playing with stick and rocks. And the occasional football. My daughter already is better at the iPad than I am. Cogent piece.

  4. Posted March 11, 2011 at 12:36 am | #

    I like the tension the family pictures create — people looking happy, but the memories so dismal. But what could be more bleak than an old women with only a scrap book of fantasies about a family life that never was? That was haunting for me. Nice story, with an classical like Joycian epiphany. Nice work. Keep working. It’s good for us all.

  5. Posted March 11, 2011 at 4:43 pm | #

    A really interesting, disturbing and entertaining story………put me in touch with a couple of my own “dirty little secrets” that I have been carrying around way too long.

    A haunting painting that I look forward to seeing “close up”

  6. Posted March 12, 2011 at 7:36 pm | #

    My heart sunk along with the scrapbook and coffin. But sometimes it takes a sinking heart to remind you it exists.

    A picture might be worth a thousand words. But well-chosen words about pictures are priceless.

    An excellent read.

  7. Posted March 15, 2011 at 1:36 am | #

    Well done .This story maKES US ALL NOSTAGIC for for what never was and hoped would come to pass. How time sweeps us from the stage of life and people say oh yeah I remember him /her and forget again swiftly. Good stuff

  8. Posted March 27, 2011 at 4:05 pm | #

    .A beautiful portrait of a multi-generation reminiscence.
    Our aging brings a poignancy and even a degree of sadness to our reminiscing that can only be experienced as we march into the twilight. Your story “nails it”

  9. Posted June 22, 2011 at 12:22 pm | #

    A very thought-provoking piece, raising the questions of how our narcissistic digital world can contribute value, richness,and true connectedness, what type of sensibility and even courage is required to revisit the past, and what is to be derived from doing so.

  10. Posted July 7, 2011 at 12:10 am | #

    I just love your prose. You bring me right there with you. Made me sense the way I feel when I try to connect on “Facebook”, and then I drift away to what it was I’m trying to do.

  11. Posted February 7, 2012 at 7:15 pm | #

    A moving story on the universal theme of a person looking back at his life with an approach that is unique and original. There’s a subtle hint of a parallel between the narrator’s scrapping of Molly’s scrapbook and his coming to terms with the sadness and yearning that characterized his own past.

  12. Posted April 3, 2012 at 4:22 am | #

    Robert Haydon Jones always has a message for me! No matter what piece I read of his I relate to it so many ways. “A Scrapbook Of Loving Kindness” hit me like a ton of bricks. For a few minutes I was Jimmy O’Hara! Then I quickly reverted back to myself–a guy who tried Facebook for three awful days. Then I went back to my old ways of being a low tech guy–I have my own built in Facebook tucked away in my brain, and can draw from it whenever I wish. Thanks Robert, for being such a great writer. You have a wonderful talent!

  13. Posted February 11, 2014 at 7:48 am | #

    Very very poignant story; our past lives (no matter how happy they may or may not have been) are so difficult to allow oneself to look at, ponder, remember. Life sometimes feels like it is all about loss and learning how to process it without regret. RHJ captures all the sadness, yearning and confusion of looking back.
    The ending brings us back to that part of ourselves that still choses denial and anger over love.
    Wonderfully written.