A long time ago or once upon a time, stifled by the desire to get everything right on paper, rendered immobile by my inner and nasty critic, I was encouraged to read Bird By Bird, by Anne Lamott. I have read it numerous times and often wish I could commit it to memory. Ah, the perfection that comes from the memorized verse. Lamott strikes out at the need and desire for perfection. Instead, she pushes me to embrace the messiness of writing, to muse. She tells me to let go and not worry about destination or the big picture. She set before me the creed by which my musings are written, by which my inner wild woman craves to live: “Don’t look at your feet to see if you are doing it right. Just dance.” When I muse, and this is a necessary part of my writing process, I don’t look. I just write. I hope you enjoy these musings. I hope you muse as well.
Photographs and Memories, August 2019
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I was a child, perhaps four years old. My family would be making the first move of many in my life with them. My father, graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy, had taught at his alma mater for a number of years but would soon take over as Executive Officer of a submarine stationed in Florida. This move would be one of excitement. My sister and I had not yet learned that my father’s official orders would wrench us from friends and familiarity.
My mother had recently purchased a Brownie camera, a box-like mechanism that required dexterity in threading film—not to be touched—from a full spool to an empty one. Quickly, close it up before the film is exposed and ruined! On a day when she was wrapping our belongings in stiff brown paper and placing them in boxes supplied by the moving company, when she was washing out cupboards and closets—a good Navy wife left no trace behind—she tired of her daughters’ constant demands for attention and said, “Here, you can take pictures with my camera.” Of course, the camera contained no film on that day, but my sister and I were unaware of this critical fact as we took turns positioning the camera low, looking down into the little glassy frame, and pushing down on the awkward trigger.
As the interior of the house dwindled from the delightful hominess of chairs, pillows, knickknacks and my mother’s artwork, to bare walls, bare shelves, and bare floors, Debbie and I raced about taking pictures to remember. Of our dog by his bowls, my sister riding our hobby horse, I swirling in a princess skirt on my bed. Of our kitchen table, the green sofa we often curled into, the back yard that ended at the forest, the mailbox that once was home to a black widow spider.
The moving van’s doors closed, and it chugged away. My mother filled the car with last minute items and her two daughters, and drove to her parents’ home in Baltimore, where we would spend a few tearful days before heading south, through Florida, to the farthest dot of land, Key West. My mother would drive alone, my father already settled in his new job of high importance. Debbie and I excitedly shared with Grandma and Pop that we’d taken pictures for memories.
“No, you didn’t,” my mother said, her voice deep with fatigue. “There was no film in the camera.”
My own sons now grown and living their lives in distant places, I walk past my own walls that are a delightful clutter of pictures we all have taken. Pictures of loyal family dogs, our horses, the boys at all stages of growth and achievements, our niece and nephew, John’s parents. Landscapes captured by our oldest son, a newspaper photographer and reporter. In a guest room, stacked on several shelves, countless photo albums of several generations never seem to collect dust. When the boys come to visit, the albums are opened. Memories pour forth.
When John and I hike in the mountains, attend the special moments in our sons’ lives, or visit friends or family, the digital camera—with its film of infinity!—is in my hands. I’ve become a bit of a fanatic about taking pictures, and I have become one who pouts when I miss a chance to click for a prize picture. I have become one who has allowed the camera to get in the way of noticing, observing, study.
Too often, the moment an elk slips into a clearing, a chickadee perches on a branch, our little filly poses, or a cloud offers a design, I feel the need to position the camera, zoom in, squeeze the tiny silver circle atop the camera. If I fail to catch the moment, I have failed in that moment. I have lost the image and have gained nothing in its place.
Why do I despair of not having permanently recorded the moment? Must I have proof that the event actually occurred? Does it matter that some may doubt that what I saw ever was? Perhaps I second-guess my own ability to recall the image in order to share it with others. Perhaps I won’t remember that the clouds were gray with rain, that the field was full of lupine and columbine, that one of the particular dogs displayed the droopy eyes of love and contentment. Perhaps I won’t remember the dogs at all. Perhaps I won’t remember my sons at every stage of their lives. Perhaps I will forget their dear smiles.
Yet some of the most searing memories are ones that didn’t involve the camera at all. Not long ago, while John and I were camping just above Pinedale, we looked across the Green River and in the day’s fading light, we spotted a mother deer ambling with her two fawns. The camera was in the camper, and a sudden rush of movement could have spooked the little family. We stood, we whispered, we watched. Forever. Soon they were gone. I don’t believe I will forget them, the way their heads moved, the daintiness of their steps, their silence. Photographs don’t catch the sound of silence, the river’s rush, the chill in the air, the smell of someone’s campfire, my tears as I fell in love with the babies. I saw the deer, not through a lens, but through my own wide eyes and my soul.
Like so many others, we load our pictures into computer files with broad, vague labels—Summer 2018—or we print from our camera’s memory file and slide the prints into albums. We neglect to record date, location, names, context. My mother-in-law contended that a picture wasn’t worth much if that information wasn’t scrawled on the back of the print. This is the drawback of the photograph. Without the record, the image is meaningless. There is no comparison to our ability as humans to whip out a scenario from ten or twenty years ago, to remember each detail, to be accurate in fact. But are the facts complete, and are they accurate? Was it really rainy that day? And was my son smiling because he won an award or was surrounded by friends? Memories and photographs share the reliance factor.
But then, do we really need the reliance factor? We’re not detectives nor are we lawyers; our careers or lives don’t depend on exact recall. Does it really matter if I can’t remember whether it was a second or third grade photo?
What really matters is that we’re all sitting around the kitchen table, gently and slowly turning the pages of the albums, and someone remembers the time the dog ran off and was brought home by the nice men who drove the garbage truck. And then somebody else remembers my old horse Oliver’s constantly straggly mane. And then I remember, looking at my posed and perfect high school graduation picture in which I looked a bit like Lesley Gore, that I had vowed I would go to Woodstock, but did not.