I have always been intrigued by the relationship between our memories and the old photographs we have frequently seen.
The three pictures above illustrate my point. The picture of my uncles and their friends was taken at Thansgiving. Showing them these pictures elicited many stories about how they did not go trick or treating at Halloween. Instead, they dressed up as hobos at Thanksgiving. Several had forgotten about it until I showed them the picture. The second shows me holding court with my young uncles and their friends; I was treated as their little sister. I don’t remember living with my grandma and my 5 uncles and 1 aunt for the first two years of my life. But that picture has shaped my view of my early life and helped me understand my fascination with family history. The third picture shows my dad, me, and my brother Joe in the garden. I did not remember how very involved we used to be in dad’s lifelong gardening.But the picture evoked many memories, such as of plucking Japanese bettles off roses and throwing them in the small can of oil.
I have more than 50 boxes of slides as well as about 30 photo albums, going back to the 1920s. During the four years I cared for my mother 24/7, I scanned thousands of family photos and created family picture sites. Immersing myself in the family history, I certainly remembered much I had forgotten.But do I remember the actual event or do I remember the slides of the event? Do I remember clearly what was never photographed? Discussing the picture websites with the whole family did elicit everyone’s memories, which then became incorporated into individual memories.
I fondly remember countless slide shows with everyone in my immediate and extended family.There was always screams of laughter and frequent admonitions to the kids to to stop standing between the projector and the screen and making shadow puppets. I recall Mom’s telling me Joe was showing his girlfriend the family slides. I suspected correctly that she would call back a few hours later to announce their engagement. I encouraged my future husband to watch the family slides on his second visit to New York in 1996:) I gauge the seriousness of potential family mates by how immersed they were in the family photos. When we first met my nephew’s future wife in 2001 and observed her photo fascination, we patiently waited for the announcement of their engagement in 2007.
Yet the pictures distort the reality of our everyday life. We got a few toys at Christmas, but we never played with them. We went away on vacation the entire summer. In the summer we lived in the water, either in the pool or at the beach; in the winter there was always abundant snow. We were always outside, never inside. We never played ping pong or knock hockey. We never played board games that ended with some poor sport upsetting the board once his loss became inevitable. (I was always a good sport because I was usually winning.)
Much of our outside play is neglected. We never played badminton; we never played baseball; we never went ice skating; we never had sleds; we never rode bicycles. We did play basketball in the driveway unless the next door neighbor was complaining to the cops about evening play. Joe never ran cross country. Several brothers were photographed in football regalia, but there was no proof tthey actually played on a high school team. One broken leg is honored, but not a broken arm. We were very religious; we spent an inordinate amount of time receiving our communion and being confirmed. However, we never went to church at other times. I never wore glasses; that is an outstanding accomplishment given that I got my glasses at 10 and my contact lenses at 19.
We only graduated from school; we never attended it. There are no pictures of our schools or our teachers. You would never realize we attended three different high schools and three different grammar schools. According to the pictures, we never studied, never read a book, never went to the library, never participated in any after school activity. Joe was a drummer; I was a baton twirler. Bob started playing the accordion at his second weddin in 1989, not in 1961. Our family pets are very neglected. I gave up trying to figure out how many cats we had and what they looked like. Families who call their cats “cat” don’t waste film on them.
Relationships are neglected. Mom and Dad never kissed one another after their wedding or hugged us after babyhood. During our childhood we always wore pajamas for photographs. Dad was rarely there because he was always behind the camera. Mom was never pregnant or nursing, an accomplishment even more amazing than my never wearing glasses. No one was ever filthy, battered, bloody. The siblings related to each other by lining up in size order. We must have photographed every single occasion when my brothers wore jackets and ties. Only certain children got birthday parties. The last three brothers barely existed.
Photo therapy is neglected in the treatment of elders suffering from dementia. My mom was never the same cognitively after a terrible fall down the stairs, landing on her head. I made her a photo website, with 400 pictures captioned and arranged in chronological order. We watched the slideshow countless times, and consequently she was always able to remember the important people she loved and the significant milestones in her life.
I wonder what impact the digital camera will have on memories. We now take pictures of everyday life, not just state occasions. We already have over 1500 pictures of my 15-month-old grandson, far more than my parents took of all of us from 1945 to 1985. Anticipating two granddaughters this year, I am in the market for an external hard drive. My grandchildren won’t have to rely on memory; their whole lives will have been photographed.