A One Of A Kind Gift
Lives chronicled in photos
Recently, my mom surprised me with a photograph album reviewing my past, from early childhood to the present. She created an album for each of her four grown children, a labor of love demanding Herculean effort. Our family's extensive photo collection lay scattered in boxes, a disorganized jumble for many years. The task of sifting through the photos must have stirred mixed feelings in her as she confronted time's clear imprint on her family. As she searched hard for our faces in the children we were, she chose the photos which best portrayed our lives.
Mom's photos of almost all our moments, the ordinary and the extraordinary alike, secure her place as our uncontested family historian. Any time I photograph my children, I feel I'm paying tribute to my mother's passionate history-taking of the family. Like Mom, I've begun to collect my family's moments in photographs.
The dubious privilege and certain responsibility of chronicling our experiences as a family involve tremendous work, but recording our history proves itself worthwhile. On those days when I ache to remember my boys at the ages of five and three instead of today's nine and seven, I can flip open some of our photo albums to the concrete proof I've stored of our family's past.
Quickly fading childhood
Photographs arrest our children's headlong flight into the future. As we live moment by moment, we think we'll never forget fat, dimpled legs and curled, clenched fists, wide, toothless grins, and round, red cheeks. We do forget.
These sweet remembrances of my own sons fade, and during certain hours I crave their return, so desperate am I to replace the loud, lanky mischief-makers now filling our rooms with derisive hoots and hollers. One day, I suspect that even these recollections will be a welcome return when my little boys become young men with muscled bodies, deep voices, and car keys. How quickly childhood disappears.
The family historian usually works without much cooperation. As children, my siblings and I never enjoyed Mom's crusade to record family moments. We groaned, unwilling accomplices, when she hauled her camera out in public; we flinched, self-conscious, as the flash turned heads around us. We couldn't hide from the merciless glare of Mom's lens, which captured smiles and grimaces alike.
My sons also lack enthusiasm for their captured candids, pulling faces rather than smiling for their future selves. The irony lies in everyone's enjoyment of the end result. We may not like posing for pictures, but we all appreciate seeing our likenesses. Too, what other opportunity do I, the family picture-taker, have to appear in my family photos? I hadn't realized, before receiving the album, how few photos of my past I had saved.
Photos summon memories
I know some of the photos in my album like old friends. Others surprised me with their ability to summon forgotten moments. When I see a picture of myself at six, sitting in a small, unmoving train car, I suddenly recall bordering gardens with towering, animal-hewn hedges. Though absent from the photo, they rise clear in my mind.
Likewise, the photo of myself standing against a wharf and wearing a white, lace hat reminds me of how I coveted a china doll with golden curls, clogs, and a dress with a white apron. I spent the remainder of my only trip to Amsterdam sulking because I didn't get her.
Finally, a picture of myself at nine with my arms around a friend takes me right back to Aspen Lodge where she and I learned to square dance. We also ate an endless supply of her mother's Butterfingers, and shrieked with delight when the waiter I adored asked me to save him a dance. My memories lack imagination without these photographs.
Photos stir our memories, bringing to life the people in them. Under slicked-back hair and an unlined forehead, my dapper grandfather sports a grin. My grandmother's expression of laughter contains such mirth you can almost hear her roar aloud. These photos surprise me because they contrast my final memories of two older people, constant fixtures in my life's background. It's humbling and healthy to realize that my grandparents once led lives independent of my relationship to them.
Photos bond generations together
The pictures of my parents startle me most, however. I realize as I study their young faces and arms full of children that we're more alike than I ever dreamed. Where once I strived to differ from them in every way, I'm beginning to accept our sameness. Like Mom, I'm learning I can't fight time's grip on my children. I understand why she took the photos, for I've also learned to measure time by how my children grow.
Mom's gift allows me to share my history with my children. The photos prove to them that I, too, was once a kid. I've shown my sons the photo of myself at four, with a wicked grin and a too-tight arm around my chubby, content brother's shoulder. This picture provides a far truer gauge of our relationship as kids than the one of us wearing matching cowboy hats and pained smiles.
It also helps me to remember what it was like to be a kid. When I see my oldest son swell up in anger and prepare to slug his brother, I recall experiencing that urge with my younger brother. This particular photo reminds me just how many times.
I see in my children's photos unmistakable evidence of their growth. Though today their resemblance to these images is still clear, someday, I'll struggle like Mom to find their likenesses. I might one day gather their photos and make an album for them.
My boys will appreciate a gift allowing them to prove to their own disbelieving children their childhood. Perhaps, they'll sense in their album the steadfastness of a mother's love in recording so many moments, large and small. This, her singular sense of purpose, is my mother's true gift to my siblings and me.