I sift through photos scanned in stealth by my brother from collections tucked away to gather dust in unknown corners of my parents home. I attempt to match the antique black and white photos or the faded Kodachrome colors with the perfect mat, the perfect saying, the perfect decorative element.
This is a project of love tinged with sadness.
My own memories of childhood and even early adulthood have faded almost as much as some of the photos, only sparked into vivid Technicolor when I stumble upon an object, an image, or sometimes even a scent that brings me back to a brief moment.
The collection of childhood stories found tucked into an old desk drawer remind me of when my writing dreams began, inspired by my second grade teacher whose name eludes me.
The green stuffed ape that made a recent surprise appearance engenders images of singing karaoke in private rooms in Japan with a man I thought I might love, and a wonderful group of friends.
The collection of Nancy Drew and Bobbsey Twin mysteries that I pulled out of my parent’s attic in the hope they might interest Sarah recall hour after hour curled up on my pink bedspread with tiny white flowers reading page after page of every book in sight.
I was excited when this episode of SAVED BY THE BELL came out because I had the same bedspread as Jessie Spano (Image came from hellogiggles.com)
I still yearn for the hard cover copies of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights marked with fading pencil lines under every word I wanted to learn and remember.
The musty smell when I enter an antique store brings me back to my Nana’s house, although memories of Nana elude me, as do memories of any of my grandparents who all died when I was very young. They live on only in the recipes handed down for special holiday fare.
My daughter’s search for the perfect bathing suit makes me flash to a black suit with a rainbow stripe on a blossoming body. My Great Aunt Irene, the only one of that generation that I recall as anything more than an image, surprised me as I walked out of her home to head toward the beach two blocks away. “What a cute figure,” she said. I still recall the feel of my blush; an awkward tween unsure of how to react to her developing body. Now I yearn to be able to fit into that black bathing suit.
Still each of these memories are brief flashes. I struggle to fill in the gaps.
If I have lost so much memory simply to the passing of time, then what snippets does my father hold as he faces the deep erasure of memory by a disease that nobody can control?
All these thoughts pass through my head as I work to create a special memory and gift of celebration for my parents’ 50th anniversary. An anniversary which should be celebrated with a giant party and much laughter, but will instead be marked by a quiet family gathering over Chinese take-out in a house of fading memories.
I wanted to give them a gift to commemorate the occasion. But what gift could I give that would reach my father, whose slow fade into the depths of Alzheimer’s reflects the faded pictures of their past? What gift could I give them both that could spark a recognition of the miracle of surviving together for 50 years, despite difficult times which sometimes came close to tearing us all apart?
While recent gifts to the grandparents on both sides of our family have included photos of their only grandchild, sometimes placed in albums or scrapbooks, that solution didn’t seem the answer this time. Or at least not in that form. Although I treasure my own scrapbooks almost as much as the pile of journals that have traveled with me from move to move, from country to country, and from dream to dream–somehow putting together another book of pictures protected by plastic pages seemed like it would not be enough to reach my father and bring smiles to my mother.
Instead I came up with the idea for a family project. I wanted to create something memorable and tactile. I wanted my father to be able to touch moments of his past, hoping that physically touching the photos and reading the sayings would somehow be the spark needed to provide him a moment of living technicolor memory. To do this, I put my brother on the mission to gather the photos. I gave Nathan the assignment to create some kind of beautiful container.
Sarah and I set to work mounting, writing, and creating a collection of images that could be sifted through in a cascading journey through time.
Sarah picks out a picture taken in Durango, CO. She sighs and says, “The last time Papa was still Papa,” before grabbing a label and a pen.
“I don’t think that’s what you should write,” I say. “I think that picture was taken earlier, and we don’t want this to be all about sadness.”
“Okay,” Sarah agrees. “I just really remember Papa as Papa then.”
I know what she means. For me, at least, the beginning of the more rapid decline began on their last trip to visit us in Durango. My father’s unwillingness to do much of anything on that trip didn’t match the man who was always on the move or playing mysterious games with Sarah. I’m glad she has some memory of that man, even though she cannot recall the Papa who came and spent a few weeks watching her as I prepared for an important job interview when she was still a toddler. Those memories still live tucked away in scrapbooks of her early years.
It wasn’t until I read the announcement about the Daily Post’s “Weekly Writing Challenge, A Few of My Favorite Things” that I realized what we were creating. We were creating an heirloom. We were gathering together a collection of memories and images that symbolize many different things. Perhaps it’s not an object that has been handed down to me for generations. Nor is it one of my own treasured items, gathered as I’ve lived a life of unexpected twists, turns and adventures. However, this simple box, containing years of images, represents all the moments of a past that I only know in snippets of memory or story.
As I prepare to give this gift that contains generations, and will eventually be passed back down to future generations, I imagine the tears forming behind my mother’s eyes–tears of sadness and of joy. I picture my father flipping through photos until he finds one that he will hold onto, journeying back through time to a moment that I may never understand. Which photo will it be? I wonder. Will he place it beside the chair he rarely leaves? Will he have one of his better moments and be able to share the story in words? Or will he sit in silent memory until that moment passes?
The box opens to a wedding picture.
For me, one image stands out. It’s not of their wedding, although those photos are beautiful. It ‘s not of our family as the three children grow up. It is a picture that I don’t know if I have ever seen before, but one that tells me a story of young love and romance, of adventures taken and a relationship growing. I don’t know why this picture calls to me, but it calls with the voice of a story I yearn to hear.
I can’t choose my most meaningful possession. Many of the items that I have carried with me from location to location hold special meanings. Anywhere I look in my home, I am reminded of a moment that has past as well as future possibilities. Yet somehow, as I prepare to wrap this gift in special paper so that we can photograph the moment of revelation and add to its contents, I know that I have just created something that will mean more and more with the simple passage of time. It is a meaningful possession that belongs with someone else.