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December 20, 2009

Our lives are lived continuously but remembered selectively and our remembered life is punctuated by gaps. Some gaps, a few, are the brain’s protective ability to block out traumatic experiences. Most, however, are due simply to the ordinariness of our lives: the day-to-day routines, the trivial events, the minutiae that we don’t need to recall. The fact that we do remember many of these ordinary things is because they’re representative of so much of our everyday lives. But we also carry with us memories of major events, of significant people, of special places. For me, and probably for most of us, those memories come in the form of pictures, images, much like turning the pages of the family photo album. In essence, that’s what my story is, an album of snapshot memories.
There are many snapshots in my album and they are of three kinds. Some are descriptions of real photographs in our family album. Dad was an inveterate family-photo-taker and put together several albums over the years, the old-fashioned kind with the photos secured by gummed corners. The albums had black pages and he wrote captions (some of them quite clever) under each photo in white ink. This one, for example, is from our family album:

SNAPSHOT: That’s me at eleven months old. I’m sitting on a blanket spread on a concrete bench overlooking San Francisco bay, arms spread wide, wearing only a diaper, a smile, and a cast on my left leg

Dad captioned the photo “Open wider . . .” Below that is this explanatory note: “Davie broke his leg on Sat. January 15, 1944. The cast was removed Mon. February 21, 1944.” I have, of course, no memory of breaking my leg. It was a playpen accident, before standards mandated narrowing the gap between slats. My leg tangled in a blanket and caught between the playpen’s slats. I lost my grip and corkscrewed down, breaking my left leg.
Here’s another photo from the album:

SNAPSHOT: Dad labeled this page “The Old Ferry Slip – July 29, 1942.” That’s him there, wearing the watchcap and sitting on that 6 x 6 timber at the edge of the pier, straddling a firehose so it looks like a giant penis coming from between his legs. There’s water running through the hose so it’s big and round and hard and it extends clear across the pier to the camera and then past it, out of sight. The smile on his face is a sly one.

He captioned this photo, “My, my!”
Another category of photos in my album is the imagined ones, what I think I would have seen had I been there. This is an imagined photo:

SNAPSHOT: The California Highway Patrolman is sitting in his black and white, microphone to his mouth. A white Cadillac ambulance sits behind the black and white. The heavy grayness of late afternoon complements the bleakness of the surroundings. You can make out some men struggling to bring a body from between some boulders.

But most of the photos in this album are memory snapshots, images inscribed in my mental album that I can turn to at will. This one, for example:

SNAPSHOT: My grandmother is standing at the top of the four red steps that lead to our porch. Her hand is over her mouth, her eyes open wide in shock. I’m on the ground at the foot of the stairs, my tricycle on top of me. You can just see the tail of Mickey, our cat, disappearing out of the frame of the snapshot on the right.

Or this one:
SNAPSHOT: I’m four. It’s night, and Mom and I are hiding in the bushes in a neighbor’s front yard after ringing the doorbell and running. A man, silhouetted against the light coming from the open front door, is reading the Halloween party invitation we left on their porch.

Thinking back to the “My, my!” photo, taken in San Francisco, I was six when I first saw it and I wondered why the camera wasn’t closer to Dad so I could see him better and I wondered why it said “My, my!” underneath. But my interest quickly passed to other pages, like the one titled “Up the Redwood Highway, August, 1942.” Here’s a photo from that page:

SNAPSHOT: Dad and Mom are standing on a flat rock in a shallow stream, Dad in a bathing suit and shoes, Mom in shorts and a halter, shoeless. Mom is posing like a model, one leg slightly in front of the other, head down ever so slightly, looking up demurely. They’re both smiling. The camera has pushed them to the far right of the frame in order to include some scenery: the stream, the far bank, evergreens crowding the bank like kids at a water fountain.

Dad captioned this, “Beauty and the Beast.”
Some years later, probably when I was nine or ten, I was looking through the album and once again I came across the “My, my!” photograph. This time it made sense to me, I understood what Dad and whoever took the photograph were doing. I could feel my face burning and I was glad that no one was looking at the photo with me. Why would Dad let someone take a picture of him like that? Worse, why would he put it in the family photo album where everyone could see it? And the caption! He was proud? Once again I quickly passed to other photos, covering the offending one with my hand.
By the time of my third viewing I was fifteen. Dad was dead and we were living in Mexico. I came across the album in a box in a closet, sat down and looked at the photographs. I paused when I came to “My, my!” and looked at it carefully for the third time in my life. Then I smiled. Dad was pretty clever to take advantage of the firehose the way he did, I thought. And the caption! It was subtle. It didn’t clobber you the way “I’ve Got a Big One!” or “I’ll Put Out the Fire!” would have. “Pretty cool!” I thought.
Snapshots. They’re little time machines that allow us to relive selected times of a life, our own or others’, but with new perspectives that make understanding and interpreting what we’re reliving tricky. Each time I looked at “My, my!” I saw a different person: First, Dad as dad, then Dad as an embarrassment, and finally Dad as clever. How accurate, then, how reliable, are snapshots? The images they capture never change, of course, but our interpretations of them do and what we believe, know, and care about can change as well.
Our remembered life is a photo album of sorts. We carry with us a multitude of remembered things, but, unlike a family photo album, we can’t choose which memories we’ll keep, which ones we’ll discard. When we think back on our lives, when we talk to others about ourselves, what we did, who we were, we pull out this memory album and consult it. It provides us with a snapshot of the occasion and that snapshot-memory permits us to enthuse, explain, justify, defend, muse, apologize, boast, regret or in some other way talk about it.
Snapshots. Memories. They help validate and legitimize our existence. My album continues.

One Comment leave one →
  1. December 20, 2009 10:26 pm

    >This is really a good little piece! I would "memory" to your tags, as this is great summation of how our minds usually work – regardless of whether it applies to your specific life or not. Keep up the good thinking.Baltic

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