Photographs and Memories

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)

4 comments… add one
  • Cindy A Link

    Yesterday, a nurse in my doctor’s office looked at my chart and noted that I am 50 years old.  She said, “Oh, I just can’t WAIT until I turn 50!”  When I told her I’ve never heard a woman say that before, she said she had a sister who died of breast cancer at 34 and, “After all, what’s the alternative to not turning 50?”

  • Ruth,
    are you famiiair with Jon Vezner’s song called  “Who’s Gonna Know?”
    Jon was thinking about the same questions you ponder, from a slighlty different angle. I think you might like it.

    Thanks, Kerry. No, I have never heard it before.

  • Robin Link

    Once again, Ruth, your posts reflect exactly what we are going through!  Going through boxes and boxes of photographs, letters, stuff we still have from our long deceased parents, our kids art projects, school papers, etc.  Trying to pare down but not eliminate our history and memories.  Surely Alex will want to see is 1st grade drawings someday, right?  Its quite wonderful to have someone put into (very well-written) words what are lives are like right now.  You rock, Ruth.

  • Steve Link

    There’s photographs, and then there’s PHOTOGRAPHS.  During his last hospitalization, a few days before he died and while he was clear headed and frankly not feeling too bad, Pop said, “Son, in my files marked ‘personal,’ there’s a sealed, plain envelope marked ‘Jack’s personal photographs.’  Get that envelope and burn it.  Don’t open it, just burn it.”    I agreed.  I didn’t ask him about the photos, I just agreed.  After avoiding eye contact for a few moments, he sheepishly smiled and said, “Those photos are….intimate…uh, you might say… pornographic…pictures of your mother and me.  So you understand why…”   
    “You can stop there, Pop.  I don’t need to know any more.  And I PROMISE you I will not open that envelope!”

    My folks were always frisky, and I loved that about them, but as we sort through his photos, I’m glad he had those segregated and remembered to tell me about them.

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