A Memory to Hold On To

Yesterday, on Father’s Day, my sister posted a picture of her and my dad circa 1992. The photo is actually of her entire softball team, but the other girls (including me, I’m pretty sure), all decked out in green shirts and boxy, unattractive hats reading “Packy’s Pub,” the team’s local sponsor, have been cropped out. My dad is the coach. His arms are crossed and his hair, just reaching the point of more gray than black, is styled in a Mel Gibson-esque – dare I say it? – mullet. He looks tough. He looks proud. According to my sister’s caption, he is “smizing,” a term coined by the eloquent Tyra Banks. It’s a pretty spot-on character study of my jock dad, who embraced having three daughters and supported us in all of our athletic endeavors, regardless of the fact that my sisters and I were basically useless on a softball field.

Over the last few years, on every trip home, my sisters and I have found ourselves flipping through our parents’ extensive collection of photo albums, pulling prints out every so often and snapping pictures of them on our iPhones. They are mostly of us when we were kids: piled together in our flannel nightgowns in a bed with a Care Bears comforter; crouching in the sand, making our Strawberry Shortcake dolls frolic along the roots of an old beachside pine; posing with the whole family on Beth’s First Communion day with a giant white teddy bear. Some are pictures of my parents or grandparents when they were younger, as teenagers or brand new parents. I like to imagine them then, before they became my mom and dad or grandma and grandpa. I like wondering what they were laughing about or how many drinks they had had. 

I’m a little obsessed with photographs and the way they can capture the essence of a person or a moment. They’ve also become, for me, an anchor that helps me hold on to a memory, a feeling. For example: my dad and I laying on the couch in a small cabin in the Adirondacks that we rented for a week each summer. I’m three? Four? It’s clearly past my bedtime. I’m in an oversized t-shirt and I’m stretched out on top of my dad. Neither of us is smiling, which makes us look even more alike, over-tan skin, brown eyes and sullen faces. Maybe we’re just tired. Maybe he’s annoyed at my mom for ruining a nice father-daughter moment with the flash of a camera. Maybe he’s frustrated because his youngest daughter just won’t go to bed.  I know that feeling. 

I may have changed the details of the picture, I don’t know. I don’t have it; it’s in an album on a shelf in my parents’ house. It could be that I was actually asleep in the picture. In fact, the more I think about it, I’m fairly certain that I was sleeping, so there’s no way that I actually remember that moment. But I feel like I remember it, even if it’s a false memory. The comfort of being little and sun-soaked and resting with my big dad, the only one in my family with the same color eyes as me. 
This is why, when so many others are trusting their photographs to “the cloud,” I continue to order prints of all of my pictures, hundreds at a time, with doubles or triples of my favorites. I meticulously insert them into albums, trying my hardest to keep them chronological.  My two older daughters, like their mother, already love to flip through the pages and “remember” the trip we took to visit family in Brooklyn, or the time their grandparents took them to the zoo. They’re little; Ceci, at nearly two years old, won’t have any real memory of the events we are currently documenting on camera. But she will have a photograph that she can carry in her car seat with her on the way to the grocery store, as she sometimes does with a picture of her cousin Howie on a playground nearly a thousand miles away. Later, I hope she’ll tape them to the mirror in her bedroom or put them in her locker at school. Maybe she will take some to college with her, tack them up on a cork board or put a small album on a shelf above her desk.

My kids will be inundated with pictures on Facebook and Instagram, as well as whatever sites and apps I don’t even know about and the ones that don’t exist yet, but I hope pictures won’t become meaningless to them. It’s old-fashioned, but I want my girls to have something they can hold onto, not just something you swipe through, then it’s gone. I want Maggie to think she remembers the time she took up residence in a child-sized princess chair in the middle of an aisle in Target and refused to budge, for her to laugh at how stubborn she was, even at the age of two. Remember that, mom?, she’ll say. I hope she pulls that picture out to show her own kids, along with a host of other small, shiny rectangles, and they will revel in the feel of the paper in their hands, like pieces of a puzzle or a treasure map.

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