As long as I can remember I have loved photos. Leafing through photo albums, touching the pictures, lingering over the memories. As soon as you could start playing that game “what would you save in a fire” I have thought; my photos. There was nothing else as important to me (I am talking THINGS, of course my family and any pets, and maybe my stuffed panda came first) – my photos ARE my memories. Growing up as a Third Culture Kid I couldn’t rely on walking the streets of my childhood to prompt memories of friendships, parties, houses. My childhood lay amongst those pages, a neat chronography of relationships and hairstyles. Therein lay my roots, who I was, where I came from.
Better even than the albums, however, was The Photo Trunk. This belonged to my mother and this is important because the fact that the trunk existed and that it was my mother’s are inextricably linked. In this trunk were all the photos that hadn’t made the cut into the albums, duplicates, or photos that hadn’t yet been sorted. Just loose photos, all mixed up in a jumble. You could shove your hand in and bring out a handful and could find pictures spanning decades. It was a treasure trove and never failed to prompt questions that prompted stories and memories. As I got older and older and moved away and grew up the trunk became a bit of a joke at my mum’s expense, a constant reminder of an ongoing project she could never quite get around to tackling. And who could blame her? It was a massive undertaking.
It took quite a few years for me to realise that I had my own photo trunk. Only mine was virtual. Not a solid hunk of metal sat in the corner for the kids to crawl around on and poke inside, mine was this hovering cloud of doom, threatening to grow and swell fat with faces from the past until one day it might burst raining memories around me like so many raindrops. Maybe you are super organised and edit and sort your photos as you go but I bet most of you aren’t. I definitely wasn’t. I can go a week without taking too many photos and then take 100 in a day. My photos went from phone and camera onto a hard drive, never editing or sorting as I went and this quickly lead to folders of 2000 or more photos EVERY YEAR. And don’t even start me on accidental duplicates on back up hard drives from old computers. I had organised myself enough to have baby books from each boy’s first year (ok, one, one baby book, my older sister gifted me the first one) but I started to realise we had all these photos yet we never looked at them the way I used to love looking through my childhood albums. It became really important to me to get the rest sorted so we could enjoy all the photos of the memories we had, and those we didn’t. So I started. Year by year. Rotating, deleting, renaming, ordering and finally weeding out the ones that would make the cut. A very long, slow, process of whittling thousands of photos down to, ideally, 800 or less per year. And still. 800 photos! In a year! So many memories! And from these, the 100-200 that would finally make it into an album. It took forever.
When I got sick last year I was still a few years behind. And almost immediately I got those years caught up; the panic of dying and leaving a virtual trunk for my kids a horror that spurred me on to Get It Done. How would they remember their childhood if I left all these loose photos lying around?! I know their father would absolutely never even attempt to make head nor tails of them. Was I going to leave a photo trunk legacy of my own?!
So now I have a neat row of slim albums of the professionally printed kind starting with the year of my oldest’s birth right up to date. No, they don’t really compare to the thick heavy tomes my parents had, with the photos you could slip out and hold close, all faded and a million tones of 70s brown. But it isn’t a bad alternative, and my kids now also have their childhood neatly printed and presented for them to leaf through and remember. And they do, and they love it, just as I did, it is really one of the best things I could have taken time to do. I have a few of those shadowy pre-kid years still needing to be tackled. But the lesser resolution of the early digital cameras and lack of delectably photogenic munchkins makes it a much less enticing task.
Recently I visited my parents and dragged the old trunk out. It is still there, little changed, though my mum would argue she has made a lot of progress. She still plans to sort them all, scan them, print them out. I said I would help and took a selection to work on. One of my sisters did the same. It was just as fun as it always was to go through them all, though now there are hardly any I have never seen before, it is still something of a thrill to see my parents so young, so happy and full of life, hear their stories behind the pictures. A while ago I was talking to O, I think, and he asked something about my parents, from when they were young, before kids. And I wrote to them asking them to tell me about how they met. Although I had probably heard it a thousand times I realised that I didn’t really know details. My Dad sent a vague reply, my Mum said nothing and as the weeks went past I thought that was that. And then the other day an email landed, with a long document attached, with blurb and pictures talking all about that first year or so when they met, before they got married and started a family. It meant the world to me.
God knows family relationships can be tough. There is just SO MUCH of everything. Memories, emotions, love, anger, resentment, joy, what you did and what they said and why did you, why DIDN’T you? But you look through photos, in a trunk, on a pc, in a book and all of it comes rushing in. The years and years, the houses, the friends, the pets, the toys, the holidays, the meals out, the days out, all of it gone gone gone. But not us. Never us. Like a stop motion movie with the 5 central characters holding still as the world flashes and changes around them. The million versions of you that came before the you you are now. The one that held your parents on a pedestal so high it was impossible for them not to fall, the one that looked up sulkily through your fringe, fighting to pull away from them and become your own person. But in the middle, at the core, it is always them and always you. Always. That is what the photos mean to me and it is what I hope my kids see when in years to come they look at our photos, even if they don’t realise it until they themselves have kids and get to see through that strange new lens it gives you on life and your parents. They are seeing us and them. The 4 of us. Together. Through places and times and humdrum and adventures. Concrete proof of this time when we were all together, that we were.