On Taking Photographs

The oversized albums stacked up on the high shelf in the linen closet were hard to reach.

On days where we weren’t going anywhere, we would pull the albums down and drop them heavily, spread them out, and slowly turn the pages – we would start at the beginning, photos of our grandparents, posed in patent leather, full skirts, high cheek bones, sometimes with Hollywood celebrities.  In those days, there were always cameras on hand.

On the back, written in formal cursive, it stated names, the year, and the place. Each and every one documents who, what, when and where. The why was always left unsaid, and the stories through the years changed, are elaborated, more details and secrets erupt the older we got and the more we were able to handle.

We reached our parents’ years. When they met. The shag rugs in the first apartment, gardens, holidays and engagements, were all photographed in faded tones by the time we opened the pages for the first time of the albums, the photographs carrying us through times we would never live, but we lived through on the rainy days, looking through the albums.

Photos of the overstuffed chairs that were once orange, but we know as now covered green – there were generations posed, year after year at Christmas and Easter, documenting births, marriages and deaths.

The excitement grew on albums three four and five…our generation. We could see ourselves as babies, our parents as young parents, grandparents who were not shuffling or hunched over, but alert, alive and able.

So cute, you were so cute – I had to wear the hand-me-downs – so our matching dresses, I wore twice. We were so cute, with home-cut-hair-cuts. Mom was so young. Dad had that bushy beard.

Do you remember that birthday cake? Do you remember the Christmas tree that year, with the electric piano beneath it, the rocking horse, the bikes? 

On the back of a few pages of photos, were the names of third grade classmates, first and last name, it was the first birthday sleepover party. Dad read a ghost story, there were a million presents, much more than if we had just a family dinner party. Barbie dolls, candy, stylish t-shirts, were all gifts, I held them high in each photo as I unwrapped them.

In the teenage years, the hair styles, the cute boys, taking photographs were imperative to prove to ourselves that these moments existed – that we could tape the photos of groups of friends up on our bedroom walls, doing risky crazy things, usually at the ocean. They were snap and shoot. We waited five days for the drug store to develop them, and if half of them came out blurry, we still saved them and considered ourselves lucky for having a few in focus.  We still wrote on the back of each, with the date, place and who was in them, even if we couldn’t see their faces.

Each year, the faces disappeared, either by lack of remembering, even with the handwriting on the back, or because the characters from them had vanished from our lives – shunned, missing, or dead. The good memories are right in front of us, they either make us remember or want to forget, even the good ones in the sunshine, seaside cliffs with loved ones, can make us somber, remembering that it never will be what it was.


Memory Layne