My dad loves to take photos. From slides to 8mm, our family history is well-documented. Two or three handmade wooden cases contain rubber banded packets of slides catalogued by number, each one corresponding with the content list handwritten on the inside of the lid: #28- Christmas 1966, #48- The Farm 1974. The reels of movie film rattle inside a much taller case, each one with a masking tape label marking the date or occasion: “Easter 1968” or “Shirley’s wedding.” And then there are the numerous photo albums, their pages yellowed and the flimsy plastic sheets missing or sliding from between the pages. My dad’s familiar handwriting also providing dates in the upper left of each inside cover.
As children, we became adjusted to always being at the center of dad’s lens and were quick to pose for family photos. The only thing we found impossible to endure was the interrogation light of the movie camera – most of his subjects squinting or shading their eyes with their hands as if they were looking directly into some mini sun orbiting over the kitchen table or living room. And if he was determined in filming the entirely of whatever event was happening in front of him, be it opening Christmas gifts or a wedding ceremony, you could count on the room temperature increasing what felt like 100 degrees.
Dad used to love to show off his collection. During family gatherings, he’d prepare the slide projector carousel with photos of backyard birthday pinatas, sledding along the Arkansas River or family reunions at Woodland Park. And if it was a long-awaited gathering with a relative from out-of-state, he’d make sure to have the film projector at the ready, stacks of silver and gray cases with those masking tape labels perched precariously on a coffee table. How we would howl at the beehive hairdos of our aunts or that one uncle’s highwater pants. Of course, my dad captured everything – at least one embarrassing moment per family member. From my temper tantrum at my brother’s birthday party and awkward dance moves by a more than a few cousins to my mom’s regular habit of swearing while she was on film (you can totally read her lips). We loved Dad’s movie night.
It seems through the years I’ve inherited his passion. I owned my first camera in middle school, a black Kodak Instamatic with the rotating flash bulb, and have since graduated to a Samsung Galaxy S8 phone with an excellent camera. I never longed to be a professional photographer, so I never owned a more expensive or expansive piece of equipment with various attachable lenses and tripods. Like my dad, I just wanted to make sure to capture a moment. It’s in those moments I find the greatest comfort, especially now as the days and months increase in speed and getting together with family or old friends has become increasingly difficult, involving strategic planning on the part of many.
I have numerous photo albums, the first one dating back to 1978, along with boxes containing tightly squeezed photos organized by dated dividers with handwritten dates, plus hundreds more downloaded and saved to the cloud. I don’t own any movie film, which is probably a good thing considering my photos are known to come spilling out of our home office closet door whenever it is opened. When it comes to photos, I am my father’s daughter.
Over the past few years, I’ve made it a ritual on New Year’s Day to look through my photos from the previous year. They are an incredible reminder of not just every event or holiday, but of every blessing. As the old year fades into the cold night, forgotten amidst the fireworks and car horns at midnight, we tend to make promises for a better new year, somehow believing that the old one failed us somehow. I have only to look through my photos to know that the year was not only better than I recalled, it was greater than I could ever have imagined. I always come across photos of events or photos with people I’d completely forgotten – pushed to the back of my cluttered memory. I feel we all tend to hold too tightly to the bad things that happen during the year, stringing them all together until we believe the entire year was nothing more than a letdown – providing us only with loss, bad luck and sadness.
When I look through my photos, I find none of this holds true. Sure, I may have experienced loss, or some bad things might have happened to me or someone I know, or maybe I didn’t achieve a goal I set, but the photos of joy and love always remind me the year did not entirely stink. I just forgot about the good stuff – the stuff that didn’t stink. Maybe that’s why my father took and still takes so many photos – to remind us of all those great moments, all those good times. Photos capture that one incredible day during a health scare month, or a week of unbridled fun during what seemed a summer of long, working hours. Photos remind us that we can still find moments to smile – truly smile – when our hearts are heavy with loss and grief. And, they remind us of the blessings we have in our lives – the people, the pets, and the places.
We used to tease my dad about always having his camera at hand, calling him Cecil B. DeMille. At times, we groaned in unison when he made us stand together in front of a historical landmark in 100-degree heat or had mom relight a birthday candle to get a better shot. But I can’t imagine not being able to look through those photos. I love to be reminded of times long past, clothes we thought were cool, forgotten visits from out-of-state relatives, or when Christmas Eve used to fill my parent’s home with cousins, aunts and uncles. I especially love being able to recall the faces of those who have long passed – recalling every laugh line, dimple or look in their eyes. For that moment, as I hold their photo in my hand or pull it up on my screen, their memory, their smell, the sound of their voice floods my soul. Yes, photos document our history, allowing us to catalogue every milestone event, holiday or gathering, but to me they serve more as reminders of a life well-lived and a life well-loved, and perhaps a year that wasn’t so bad, it was actually quite remarkable.