Over Thanksgiving break, my daughter and I watched Pixar’s latest masterpiece, Coco. The young protagonist, Miguel Riviera, is an aspiring musician. Miguel’s great-great-grandfather had abandoned the family in search of musical glory. And so, the prejudice against music has percolated down through the generations. The plot opens around the celebration of the Dia de los Muertos – The Day of the dead. Homes have shrines or ofrendas displaying pictures of ancestors to honor their memories.
A strong visual element is the bridge connecting the Land of the Living with the Land of the Dead. The departed souls are not allowed to cross over to “visit” their families unless they are represented on the ofrendas. No picture, no crossing over. It is the act of remembering that keeps them “alive.”
Miguel inadvertently enters the Land of the Dead. He reunites with the much-berated ancestor, whose wish is for his daughter–Coco–to remember him. After restoring his ancestor’s picture to the family’s ofrenda, Miguel gives Coco the gift of her father’s long forgotten lullaby. And music enters the Riviera family once again.
The story reminded me of my late grandmother. In her final years, despite declining eyesight, she spent hours with her picture albums. It was a ritual to lose herself – or rather – find herself, over and over through those albums. And it helped keep her mentally alert.
More recently we witnessed my mother-in-law’s slow decline from Alzheimer’s. Even in the early stages of the disease, she amazed us with her recall when it came to genealogy. Show her a picture and she would find at least three connections to said ancestor. Alzheimer’s first took her language skills. Then it stole her memories and thus her identity.
As digital photography and smart phone cameras get more sophisticated, cyberclouds are populated with memories. The ease of being able to tag a photo and view it whenever we please is convenient. Still, I cannot imagine my grandmother navigating gadgets without assistance. While she might have enjoyed seeing pictures on an iPad, using it would have posed a huge challenge. For her, and many of her generation, the digital divide is a chasm. The act of handling a print photograph is somehow more satisfying and comforting.
Memory books have replaced traditional albums and make for wonderful gifts. There are several websites dedicated to creating Reminiscence books for the cognitively impaired. They are being used as tools in managing Dementia and Alzheimer’s cases. Regularly seeing pictures of family members, caretakers and friends can help visually stimulate a fading memory. Caregivers can include pictures of familiar environments, both past and present to help create a time line, connect the dots, and give them a sense of belonging if even for a short while.
As we gear up with our gift lists for the impending holiday season, maybe it is time to restore our own memories by helping preserve them for generations yet to come. This could be the biggest gift we can give ourselves. And for the Coco’s of this world, it could mean a gift too priceless for words.