Mon 6 Jun 2011
long before my grandfather died, i stole my childhood photo album from his house.
‘stole’ is perhaps too strong a word. i laid my claim to the psychedelic satin-covered relic, waved it in front of my grandfather, asked if i could take it home. he was gracious. or rather, he laughed and said, “well, i’m not looking at it!”
honesty. it rids your house of clutter.
i was the eldest grandchild. seven of the eight of us were born before my grandmother died in 1988, but it was me and my cousin Angela, born in 1972 and ’73, on whom my grandmother lavished the largesse of her documentary attentions. two matching albums, each with a garish cover, captioned in her handwriting. in each shot, i am labelled the full and complete “Bonnie Elaine.”
in most of the photo albums of my childhood, there are only a couple of pictures of my mother and i together.
the majority are scratchy snapshots, square and white-rimmed, with a seventies patina Instagram would die for. they follow a pattern. child – generally trussed up in finery – stands perched in front of adult – equally awkwardly trussed up in finery, frequently with a Christmas colour scheme. both smile. my mother’s smile is determined, mine distracted. in one, her hand gently but firmly grips the square jut of my chin and points my face to the camera.
i think of myself as having always been a ham, a camera hog. but that came later. only in the photos that my mother snapped when i wasn’t looking do i recognize myself and the shape of our lives then.
that small child alone, bent over her drawing, tongue sticking out? i was in the kitchen with my mother, drawing while the dishes got washed. i filled pastel pages of newsprint with characters, worlds, stories. i was not alone. we were there together. there are simply no pictures to testify.
it is hard to capture a twosome without a third around.
but in this album retrieved from my grandfather’s cupboard, i found another version of my earliest days. the pictures are mostly black & white, my father’s experimental eye evident behind the lens. me in my mother’s arms, shot after shot, a sticky-out-eared infant and a young woman i barely recognize. my mother is twenty-three. her hair hangs long and black. within the year, i know, she will have cut it short forever, and the gray will start, taking over by the time she reaches thirty. within the year my father will be gone, and there will be no more random shots of mother and child.
it was his mother who kept them, and i wonder at the heartache and family politics behind that innocent orange- and pink-covered photo album.
i tell stories and take pictures because i need them, somehow. the blog, #thehomeproject, the flickr account with its 3000+ photos of the mundanities of our children’s passing days…they are the tools by which i reflect my world back to myself. the art makes it real. the reflection allows me to see.
Dave teases me that i cannot pass a mirror without looking at myself. it’s true, almost. but i am looking for myself more than at. not vanity, but confirmation. i am here. i am in this skin. this is what they see when they look at me. and i nod and step off again into the strange sea of living, in which i flounder blind.
whether my children will ever want or need these glorified digital photo albums, i do not know. a part of me hopes they will somehow be solid enough in themselves to weather their days without needing them reflected back, diffracted out. maybe they will.
a part of me wants that for them.
but just in case, i store away for all of us these random shots. here we are, me & Posey, watching Oscar in his first gymnastics show. this is my daughter on my knee. this is my face in my fortieth year. these are the lines and the spots and the tired eyes of my adulthood. this is my tongue sticking out as i concentrate, just like when i was a kid.
we were here together.
just in case they need to know. just in case i do.
what do you document? keep? look to?