At the outset, I must confess I am a zealot about the family photo album. I use a one-day developing service because I can't wait. I stick the pictures into the plastic pages within hours, to the astonishment of the other half of humanity, which has 20 years of photos in an old shoe box somewhere. I gloat over the fatness of completed pages. When giant albums with the right size of sticky pages go on sale, I run out and buy three at a time. And I do all this knowing full well that family photo albums are sentimental. They are egotistical; they are deceitful.
Because, after all, what are you doing with a photo album? Family history may be fashionable, but I have never seen a family album that was a true attempt at history, nor the family photographer who was mentally prepared to record What It Is Like. We know what we are after: smiles, smiles, smiles: the day Johnny hit the home run, the new puppy, Christmas (not parents exhausted and bickering, just little Katie surrounded by pretty paper) and birthdays. Imagine someone doing a history of the United States in this rosy style. They wouldn't even put it in a textbook in Texas.
All right, so it's not exactly history we are after. But what then, and for whom?
Consciously or not, the album maker, like all authors, has an audience in mind, and perhaps an idea to communicate. Visiting friends and relations are a frequent but difficult target. They, alas, can see us perfectly well as we are. I once saw, at the National Folk Life Festival, a quilt that recorded family events in successive squares. It was so original in technique, and so uplifting in its message (the family had prospered) that it interested all who came by.
But this is rare. For most of us, the messages our albums convey to our friends can only be self-congratulatory. See how pretty we are? See what good times we have?
A more likely audience is our future selves. Years from now, we hope, we will be cherishing this volume, using it as a key to memory. Who would blame us for recording the best and forgetting the feuds and rainy days?
There is another danger: Photos can fix and inhibit memory; pictures are so strong that they overwhelm the images in the mind, so we put our nostalgia in the hands of the photographer.
And more soberly, we do not know the future, and we do not know how this glorified picture of the present may appear to us. I wonder what happens to the family album after a divorce or the death of a family member. The album might be all the more treasured, but it also is sure to bring a pain that we cannot foresee.
Memories should not be the only goal. A third audience -- the most important one -- is us, the whole family, right now. We look at the album a lot, and I think I know why.
Children, for one, love to record their progress. Our Kate couldn't seem to give up her bottle until almost 3; but finally, of course, she did, with a show of pride and an occasional finger in her mouth. A month later, snuggled in a chair with the album, she came across a picture of herself, perhaps two months earlier, having a snort from the old comforter, and shouted with glee: "Look! It's me! It's my bottle! That was when I was a baby!"
With their spacey concepts of time, children have a hard time with memory, and they love the solidity pictures give to the past. All that bothers them is why they didn't get any of that cake at the wedding. We try to be tactful.
But the truth is that I, too, love this illustration of progress. It tells me that we are doing all right, that the children are getting older, that the little one didn't fall out of the window that time, that we got the bills paid. Parenthood has been hard for us; we are old (for parents), tired, set in our ways, cautious. When I look at the album I do remember all the rest of it: the sleepless nights, the baby-sitting hassles, the tantrums, the expense.
But what I see are the smiling faces, the days the flowers were blooming, the lovely trip we took with our friends. The album reminds me of all that makes family life irreplaceable. It allows me to gloat over the sheer beauty of the children. Their hair shines in the sun; they hold their father's hands as they climb a little hill together into a bank of fall foliage.
Some cold afternoon when the house is dirty and the kids are whiny and I'm beginning to sound like a harridan in a soap opera, we'll look at the album together. Because sometimes we need to remember better versions of ourselves.