It’s a funny business, this sorting through family photographs.
If we were organized — which we’re not — our photos would be in some kind of chronological order. But we’re not and neither are they.
So, I look through them, discarding duplicates and fuzzy shots and other photos either taken by one of our kids when they were young or my husband or me when we were drunk. (If our kids have been taking photos while inebriated, I don’t want to know it.)
I pull up a thick wedge of photos, leafing through them. Here my husband and I are, startlingly young — younger, at some points, than our own children are now. We’re in our early twenties, graduate students, poor, informal, unformed.
Then flip another photo and there we are with a baby. Another photo, and I see faces I haven’t seen in decades — friends we’ve lost contact with, people who have died. I see photos of my parents and in-laws when they were our age. Another flip and I see my husband and kids and me roughly as we are now. Years and decades pass, then recede. Faces age and disappear, then reappear with that roundness of youth no plastic surgery can ever duplicate.
There’s something deeply haunting about this progression, then regression, all of it jumbled together in no order. These are mostly photos of our 36 years together, so I recognize every face. But I’m well aware that our children may not. Someone, I think vaguely, needs to mark those pictures and come up with an approximate date. Maybe even a context, for God’s sake. But today, I don’t have the time. It will have to wait.
I do have some appreciation of how these photos will age and eventually lose their value, though. It reminds me of going through my parents’ pictures and their memorabilia. I can’t bear, for example, to throw out their diplomas. But someone else will, eventually. Someday. These objects have meaning to me — but that meaning won’t outlast me. We’ll disappear together.
It all makes me think of going to the grocery store with my husband recently and chuckling over a mispronunciation we both recall one of our kids making. This mispronounced word has no meaning to anybody but us. We smiled and laughed about it together and all I could feel was the fragility and impermanence of the world we like to think we own. Better not to think about it too long.
(Copyright 2009 by Ruth Pennebaker)