My grandma’s health is failing. She’s 89 and determined to live on her own, to have her family over for Sunday dinner, for coffee during the week. But she fell a few weekends ago, landed in the hospital, and now an assisted living center.
This summer, it felt a bit like the transitions were taking tighter turns. In mid-August, I came home to falling oak leaves in the front yard. My husband and I looked at each other, puzzled.
Maybe that’s why I’ve found myself paging through old albums, digging through shoe boxes of pictures, flipping through yellowed albums.
We have so many more pictures now. They fill my phone. I have them saved on external hard drives and in clouds and in folders on my desktop. I had a thought the other day — if something happened to me, what would happen to my data? My email accounts, my files, my thousands of pictures stored in the equivalent of virtual shoeboxes in webs of the internet? Where would it all go? How would anyone find it all?
I have digital copies of my dad’s childhood in one file, 364 pictures, all converted from Grandma’s old slides. I took more photos than that on my last vacation, and my computer tells me I’ve saved nearly 18,000 photos in the last six years since my youngest was born.
Scrolling through the old slide photos, I notice that Grandma took just one shot the time a chimpanzee visited Grandpa’s orchard, just one picture of my dad on the day he got his cowboy costume for Christmas. There was only one take, one snap on Easter morning — everyone in suits and dresses, bonnets with bare legs, small patches of April snow still visible in the distance.
It was a different world: when film and developing was expensive, when you took just one shot, and then hoped for the best. No kids running over to see and approve the photo on the screen. No one to beg you to delete it and try again.
My sons are so tired of me and my constant picture-taking. With the cell phone camera, it’s so easy. My phone is almost always nearby, and so is the chance to attempt to capture this day, this moment, this child who seems just a little taller than when he walked down the stairs to bed last night. I know I’m a little obsessive — know I shouldn’t be anxious when a moment passes and I forget to try to capture it, know that taking a photograph doesn’t actually slow down time. But it does allow a window back to it.
I’ve heard from moms of older kids that I should take more videos, but I’m fascinated by the way a camera frames and cements memories. I’m enamored with the way it catches just one millisecond, the way it says, “This. This is what you’ll remember. This is the image that will come back to you.”
Not that they’re always right. Sometimes the only snapshot we merit saving may be that one moment of the day when someone wasn’t crying, when the kids weren’t bickering, when we weren’t rushing here or there. It may not show the tension in the air or the way you snapped at your husband a minute before. A pretty picture can be an illusion. A game of “Quick! Pretend! Everything is grand.” (This is important to remember as we scroll social media.)
I so often wonder what my own children will remember and forget. How they’ll paint their childhoods. What they’ll think as they page through my albums. I think this is why each time I pass them curled up on the couch staring at a screen, I want to scream, “Get up! Go fishing! Fall off your bike and skin your knees! Build a fort! Jump in the lake.” It won’t be picture perfect. You’ll fight with your little brother as he tangles his fishing line again; your chain will fall off your bike and you’ll have to walk it a mile home; you will slice your hand with the jackknife you sneak into your fort; you’ll complain about carrying all our stuff — chairs and coolers and sand toys — down to the beach and back. But these moments will make better pictures, make better memories than any electronic in a box.
In our modern-day flood of photos, it’s rare to catch it just right. To encapsulate the essence, the beauty of that person, that fleeting moment. And sometimes we don’t realize a photo’s value until years back when we take another look. Sometimes we fail to understand the gravity of what’s right in front of us. Of course we do. Poet Kamand Kojouri calls retrospect “the sweetener of life.”
And in retrospect, isn’t it the candid shots that last? Years later, when the photos are strewn all over the table and everyone has gathered around, shuffling through them, few will rush to grab the professional, posed ones. We gravitate to the others, the ones that reside in the peripheries of our memories. We pick up the ones where I’m blinking, the baby’s crying, the top of my brother’s head is missing from the frame, and the wind is blowing my sister’s hair in her eyes.
In a world of photoshop and filters and multiple takes, I hope we resist the temptation to delete all our blemishes. It seems that the imperfect develops more clearly than the perfectly arranged.