One of people’s pass-times while being stuck at home is to go through old photographs and sharing them on facebook. One of my friends and former teammates found a picture of all of us at a swim meet, faces orange (our team colors were orange and black), and half the boys with shower caps on to protect their Kool-Aid dyed orange hair. I find myself on the far right-hand side, with my Doc Martin shoes and (sigh) grey wool socks with the red stripe, pushed down over black leggings. I see the white stripes of my team jacket that I was so proud of peeking out. My hair is sort-of orange and my face completely orange, and I am clearly yelling or laughing or both, not looking at the camera.
I have no memory of this picture being taken.
I can’t find my younger brother in the picture, and he is unrecognizable to me, uncharacteristically from my memories, sullen and slouching on the opposide side of the group from me. I scan for other faces I know, finding them in the grainy picture of a picture from the mid-1990s. I barely recognize myself, and if not for those other telltale signs that it is, indeed, me, I would have kept looking for myself. I had the same feeling seeing a picture a decade later, with another swim team, unsure if the figure in the middle of the group was me or one of my teammates, again with no memory of the picture having been taken or what meet it could have been at. At least this oranged-faced picture is a meet I remember even if I can’t precisely pinpoint it in time; it may have actually been my last meet before leaving for university. Was that the meet where we all went orange, or was that the meet where we won team champs a few months prior?
Or maybe it was the year before, the year we came close to winning team champs. The shirt we were all wearing specifically for that meet is now a part of the tapestryt of a t-shirt quilt I had made of all my high-school and college t-shirts; nothing says 90s like logo t-shirts, and I had enough for a quilt that would cover a king-sizes bed. My son used to like to sit under it with me and point to the various squares, asking me to tell the story of said scrap of fabric that once and still held importance to me. The quilt now lives in the attic, and I’d have to go up and unfurl it to find the right spot to confirm date and place of the picture.
When we most-recently upgraded our phones, my daughter’s wasn’t properly backed up in the cloud and we discovered after erasing the old phone to be traded in that all of her pictures were gone. Pictures of her old friends, whom she recently had left behind as a result of our latest move. Pictures of her new friends who were all going to a different middle-school than she was. Pictures of family trips and adventures. All gone, lost. She was devestated. This happened about six months ago.
Last night, she begged me to once again try to get those lost pictures back. That they were the only things that made real the events and people and feelings of that time, of those moments. How her memory was already failing her, how words were failing her, and the only thing she had were those pictures, now gone, making unreal what was once very real, now different, changed, in the past. Everything is ruined, everything is falling apart, and if only she had these pictures to anchor her, things would be better, like they were before.
I tell her, nothing is ever again going to be as it once was, but also nothing will ever be the same as this exact moment either.
I tell her that those photographs, lost, in no way mean that she is lost, that she has been erased, that she somehow exists less. That change is normal and that she is changing into the person she is meant to become, always a part of the person she was. That dwelling on one past mistake or loss or disappointment, of repeatedly asking “what if” will cause her to miss the good things that are happening right in front of her right now.
How she spent the day learning how to play Fortnite with her friends. How her and her new BFF who lives in the same townhouse complex as we do elobrately wrap insignificant gifts to leave on the other’s porches every day. And then they unwrap the packages in front of each other over FaceTime. How yesterday’s gift from my daughter wasn’t at all insignificant, but instead a friendship bracelet that her friend adores. I can hear them laughing and talking and also just sitting on FaceTime together not talking.
I remember those days at 13. Social distancing just meant that you weren’t allowed to take the bus to meet up with friends or allowed to do anything after school. So you sat on the phone for hours, sometimes not talking, just being in vocal proximimty. I remember that feeling, those moment, even if there is no picture to remind me.
I tell her that sometimes pictures don’t help and they do nothing to stir up precise memories of the moment recorded and end up looking foreign even as you are looking at yourself. Like looking at baby pictures – you know it’s you, but there are no memories, and only a passing resemblance to who you are now. If you squint, you can see it, but from a different angle, it could be someone else. I can connect all of the pictures of her as she has moved through time, growing and changing, but she has to take my word for it when I share the stories of when the pictures or videos were taken.
In the same way I took my camera to swim meets, simple point-and-shoot cameras I got from my dad when he would inevitably upgrade, she now takes pictures on her phone. She’s started to want prints of her favorites, to put up in her room, to paste in her planner, to (eventually) put in her locker at school. I remember that feeling, that pull to memorialize, to take a concrete visual of a moment. She is now documenting her life the way she wants to; I have to ask permission to take her picture now, to share, and she has to approve of it. I respect that. It is her life, now, and she can start documenting it the way she feels is right for her.
Pictures will be lost. Memories will ineviably fade, get mixed up, become unreliable. We will make mistakes that leave painful memories that linger. We will neglect to record those things that eventually become important to us, not knowing in the moment that this is what really matters in the long run. I want to tell her all this and more, having just completed two of my own memoir manuscripts, untagling memory from the official record from the traces saved from the memories of others.
Instead, I tell her that I cannot wait to see who she will become because she is going to be awesome. She tells me to leave and that she wants to go to sleep. I don’t get a hug, but I do this morning, and we have survived another day.