Photographs and Memories
This is embarrassing. In my kitchen catchall drawer, buried among screwdrivers, packing tape, cough drops, and packages of batteries are rolls of undeveloped film. I’m sure other people must have such things but I imagine that the pictures trapped inside are insignificant to them — shots of barely remembered ex-boyfriends and acquaintances, or unpeopled scenes from disappointing trips. My rolls hold images of precious milestones like Ethan’s birthday parties when he was four and five years old.
I mean to have them developed. There’s a drug store right downstairs from my apartment that not only develops pictures, but loads them onto a CD thrown in for free. Every once in awhile, when I’m down there picking up vitamins or sanitary pads, I think of all that film and make a mental note to bring it with me next time. But that mental note just gets shoved in that other catchall drawer in my brain, next to notes about unreturned emails and phone calls. The longer I wait, the harder it gets to do something about them. I understand this about myself when it comes to correspondence. Someone on the other end is likely to feel hurt or angry that it’s taken me so long to respond; I will need to make amends. But why the guilt toward neglected photos? I know they’re inanimate objects; yet somehow they don’t feel that way to me.
Taking pictures pulls me out of the moment, so I don’t do it often, even now that I have a digital camera. The picture files on my computer are haphazard and incomplete and my organization of print photos is even worse. I’ve always admired parents who keep volumes of lovely photo albums in chronological order. Other than my framed favorites, I have a half-finished baby book and a few arbitrarily pulled-together albums. Mostly I have curling pictures crammed together in plastic bins.
It’s not that I don’t like pictures. I do. Recently, Ethan asked me to name the one possession I would choose to save in a fire. I picked a little plastic party favor from the 1970s that contains a slide of my parents posed together in a reception hall. When I put it to my eye and hold it to the light, my parents come alive just as I remember them from childhood. My mom’s short hair spit curled near her ears, my father’s side burns just starting to gray. I feel as though I could walk into that room and join them at the table. Have you eaten? Mom would ask, passing me her own plate.
I have many photos I love. One was taken on a trip to Florida when I was ten years old. In it, I’m wearing a wonderfully ridiculous outfit — pink and green bell-bottoms; a matching midriff blouse that ties just below my nonexistent breasts; a kerchief, also matching; and round blue tinted sunglasses. What makes this picture so dear to me is that my dad, crouching at my side, looks up at me adoringly. I have another beloved photograph where he, at eighty-one, gives that same took to three-year-old Ethan nestled beside him on the couch.
But my feelings toward photographs are complicated. Though I treasure the pictures I have of Ethan through the years, it makes me ache to see them. When I look at his little infant face, I miss that person he no longer is. And because my memories are not as sharp as the photo, it brings up doubts as to whether I was ever truly present enough.
Plus, there are stories behind so many photos, some of which I cherish, some of which are truly sad.
Hanging over my bed is a framed black and white print of Ethan and me in silhouette, our heads leaning together tenderly. It’s beautiful, but Richard was angry with me when he took it. He was photographing a parade out the window with his new camera when I interrupted him so Ethan could see the brightly dressed marchers.
“Him,” he snapped about our three-month-old. “It’s always about him.”
Many of the best pictures I have of Ethan are from when he was four to eight years old. They were taken by an artist I was involved with at the time whose heart I eventually broke.
It’s occurred to me that my block about developing the pictures in the kitchen drawer may be a way of protecting myself from the feelings they’ll stir up. They were taken when I was a newly divorced mom and I’m not sure I’m ready to discover what showed in my face then. They’re also likely to include a good friend of mine from those years whom I’m heartbroken to have lost.
Whatever my reasons, I know I should just get over it and pull together some lovely, thorough albums that Ethan can turn to in a nostalgic mood.
“He’s got the least-documented childhood in recent history,” I confessed to Dan one evening on the phone.
He laughed, which made me feel silly for troubling a blind person with this particular issue.
“I know. All photographs are blank to you anyway.”
“It’s not that, honey. I’m laughing because you say his life’s not well-documented. What about all the poems and essays you write about him?”
“That’s true!” Ethan’s been my muse since the day of his birth. He’s the Boy in a Bath With a Bubbly Laugh on the B page of my alphabet book and the subject of countless poems. For the past four years, he’s been quoted and contemplated in this column. A thousand words, the sages tell us, are worth at least one picture. All these portraits have been lovingly honed and Ethan understands that. Once, a few years back, he peered over my shoulder at the computer screen. “I know why you write about me, Mom,” he said. “It’s because I’m so important to you.”
4 replies on “Photographs and Memories”
As a fellow photo procrastinator, I share your guilt — and love the rueful humor with which you describe the canisters of film shoved haphazardly into catchall drawers (ours are in shoeboxes and God knows where else in the garage). Above all, thank you for showing that memories, and stories, are not always visual — sometimes evoking incidents, remembrances, and children as they once were through the written word is just as powerful, and just as lasting. Your column has certainly been testament to that.
It’s so good to read this after a weekend of knowing I should download pictures and burn videos but busying myself with everything but the task. Seeing my current nine year old when he was three or five always makes me sad. I wonder the same thing: how present was I? In the videos, it’s worse because I hear and see him say, “Mama, Mama, look…” and I realize I’m not fully there. The benefit is to realize it now and be in the moment now. It really does go by too fast.
Ona, This is touching and lovely. Wish I’d shown you my drawer when you over.
I connected so much with this piece! Yes, I know that curious tug and drag of procrasination. My personal Everest has been the job of converting my videos to dvds that we can actually view. This has been my New Year’s Resolution for 3 years in a row!! I’m finally doing it. But what was the spiritual roadblock that was holding me back? That’s the interesting question, and this piece does a fabulous job both asking and answering it. Another question: What else is sitting in the old junk drawer waiting for you to do once you’ve picked up the film and delivered it to the drugstore? Could be a forgotten joy or an even more fraught project with its own significance… and the subject of another essay altogether.