One December day, when I was 18 months old, my mother bundled me into my winter coat and set me beside her on the steps of our New Jersey rental. Then she instructed my father to take a series of photos.
People who page through the family photo albums I create often assume that my mother must have inspired such an old-school pastime. She did, but not in the way they mean. Because that winter day was one of the last times my mom felt the impulse to record our family on film.
The few pictures that survive from my childhood are out of focus and haphazard, as if a kid had gotten the camera – which was frequently the case. Faces are obscured in swirls of hair, someone is making bug-eyes at the camera; and there are endless blurry shots of our black cat stalking across the orange shag carpet. Almost entirely missing are the milestones: my first day of kindergarten, class plays, Halloweens, high school graduations.
My grandparents had a stack of photo albums, black, rectangular books tied shut with grosgrain ribbon, their pictures affixed to the pages with embossed photo corners. Sometimes, when I’m visiting my parents, I page through those albums, admiring the formal portraits of old-fashioned-looking relatives dressed in their solemn best.
When I ask my mother why she didn’t take my siblings and me to Sears for the occasional portrait of our own, she waves a dismissive hand. “We weren’t camera people.”
We’re all camera people, now. First digital technology, and now our ubiquitous phones, have made snapping pictures easier than ever, and the culture of Internet sharing seems almost to make it obligatory. Like most of us, I have thousands of photos stored on my hard drive, photos I almost never look at – not onscreen, anyway.
But the absent record of my youth has done more than make me a camera person. It’s made me a photo album throwback, someone who stores memories the way her grandparents did. I put the albums together because I want my two boys to have what I lack: a tangible archive of childhood, something they can hold in their hands years from now, a validation of their memories.
And so, every few months, I select photos, order prints. And over the next few weeks, in stray bits of time, I arrange the pictures to tell the story of our lives. Mine is a simple operation: no stickers or fancy borders, no colored pens or stamps. My albums are plain, sturdy cardboard, my only tools a roll of double-sided tape and a black archival pen. That’s all I need, though. This was your best friend, Jake, the albums will remind my younger son. Here you are, building Lego ships together, before he moved away in fifth grade. They’ll show my oldest boy the day he got his first bike, the black one with the orange flame decals, and the wary expression that settled over his face when he first saw his baby brother. I write names and dates, captions. Because I know what my children don’t: the events of their childhood, now so vital and immediate, will one day seem to them like something that happened on an impossibly distant planet, one unreachable even by the sharpest telescope.
I can see it happening already.
“Why am I dressed like that?” asks 11-year-old Nate, looking up from one of the albums with a puzzled expression. I glance over his shoulder. The photo shows a preschooler in a silver astronaut suit and a scuba mask. He’s wearing mittens decorated with felt shark teeth, colorful mardi gras beads, and his father’s dress shoes. The caption reads: “We capture on film a mysterious creature calling himself Shark Man.”
“Don’t you remember dressing up in those crazy costumes?” I ask. He looks blank. “You’d put on all these layers of stuff,” I explain, trying to jog his memory. “One time you put underpants over your head and ran around telling everyone you were Underwear Man.”
Nate looks skeptical. “Really? I did that?”
It’s understandable that Underwear Man, who was only three at the time, has forgotten his outlandish outfits. What surprises me is the attraction the photo albums hold for him now, and for his 14-year-old brother. My boys are not sentimental. They shrug when I propose keeping drawings or school projects; their eyes roll when my husband and I reminisce about their baby cuteness. Yet the photo albums draw them in. Often, in quiet moments, I’ll find them on the couch with one of the albums, reliving snowstorms and birthdays and visits with grandparents. “There’s our old car,” I hear them say, or “Remember that wizard costume?”
When I started making the albums, I thought that I was simply providing my boys with the visual history I lack myself. But the tangible archive of childhood that I wanted for them as adults is serving another purpose, right here in the present. I can see it in their absorbed faces as they turn the pages and read the captions, memorizing the details of their lives, the faces of friends and family members. Watching them, I’ve come to understand that my albums do more than simply record our years together: They anchor my sons to their familiar world, reinforcing the roots that will sustain them when, someday, they venture beyond it.
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