Monday, April 19, 2010

Photographs from the past

I've made a habit in my homes of hanging photographs of family and friends in arrangements on the walls. I've had many different homes in my adulthood, since my daughter was born. Nine, to be exact. So I've had plenty of experience pulling the pictures out and rearranging them in a new space. And my family has changed dramatically over those years. I've been married and divorced and remarried. I've had to subtly change the composition of portraits to reflect this. Like every adult, I've also had to accommodate new nieces and nephews and, in the last year, a new baby in our nuclear family. Suffice it to say, I've pulled out the photographs and the frames and mattes more times than I choose to share, tried to thoughtfully and tastefully put together a collection, and selected locations in the house to hang them together.

The truth is, the last few years have been rough waters for establishing a household. When we got married almost five years ago, my husband and I lived in two different homes in two different states. In the midst of this arrangement, when we finally got it together to have most of our stuff together in his apartment and call that our permanent address, I was commuting over 500 miles to work for a year. During this time, a few, carefully selected photographs, ones of us and my daughter, got put on the wall for a couple years. But the rest of our family pictures got stored in boxes in the basement of his apartment. We moved into our current home 18 months ago, but within a month of moving, we discovered I was pregnant. High risk pregnancy, me working fulltime, finally taking medical leave, and a teenager in her first year of high all led to a stalling of the settling into our new home.

At the end of July, we lost my father-in-law. Three weeks later, our daughter was born. All the while, we were taking photographs of family.

Recently, photographs have come back into my life. I don't mean digital images that I scroll through on my computer screen. I mean real, honest-to-goodness photographs. The kind you hold in your hands. The kind you find in your desk drawer years after you forgot it was even taken. The kind you write on the back of, so you make sure that years after you forgot it was even taken, you remember the whos, whats, whens, wheres, and whys. The kind you carefully frame and place in a coveted spot, so you feel good every time you see it. You get the idea. It clearly had been a void in my life of late and I was craving a physical connection with our loved ones near and far.

It started by getting ready for my daughter's 16th birthday. Her birthday was two months ago, in February. So in December, I decided I would put together a slideshow for her and show it at the party. Since I didn't own a digital camera until she was nine, I found myself on the bedroom floor with photo boxes and albums and hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of photographs lying in piles all around. I sorted and organized, and pared down my selections. Finally, after a couple days, I set to scanning all the photographs. 500 in all. When the whole project was done and we showed the collection at her party, I cried through the whole show.

Of course, sorting through the old photos looking for good ones of my oldest daughter didn't stop there. I found photographs from high school and family vacations (both from childhood and from adulthood), snapshots taken while on school field trips and over camping trips with the church youth group, bachelorette parties and wedding parties and tea parties and on and on and on. A photograph of my grandfather's orange trees that he sent to me while I was in middle school. A few of my best friend who moved away, the ones she mailed to me to show me her new hair cut. One a boyfriend took of me on a hiking trip; the expression on my face says it all.

I'll admit, it's a bit overwhelming. That saying, "a picture is worth a thousand words," I've come to have a new appreciation for that. Being confronted with a visual record of the past bombards my memories with the reality of those moments. Our memories can be flawed and sentimental. Photographs tend to shed light on those flaws and bring back to life the actual moments you'd rather forget. In the midst of this, I added the following phrase to my facebook page: "Walking down memory lane and getting in touch with your past is really not all that rewarding as people may think. Live for today, I say." It was a way to remind myself that these memories, this past, it makes me who I am today. It makes our family something unique. Really, the only thing I can take away from the past is a reminder to live every moment in the here and now, because that's all that matters.

So this week I'm off to the craft store to find frames for the last remaining photographs of our family. I'll frame them and place them on the wall in another arrangement, just in time to share with friends when they visit for an afternoon party this Thursday. I'm sure my husband and I will spend some time talking during the party, explaining, "this is my sister-in-law Ana" and "this is a childhood picture of my grandfather" and "this was taken the day my husband moved to the United States." Through it all, I have to keep in mind that this moment, the one in which I am breathing air circling around me, this is the one that matters most.

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