Friday, August 30, 2013

Mountains of Memories

Besides jotting down ideas for blogposts as they occur to me, I keep a pile of books to the left of my computer, ones that I've read but have not yet recorded on my reading blog. And even before my mother died, I started another pile next to the books: a pile of photographs that might guide me through the memories I was sorting.

What with finishing up spring term, then travelling with Pater for six weeks, then back home catching up with the garden and fitting in a weekend scoot up to Whistler with my sisters, a week-long revelling in family houseguests, and a 5-day trip into the BC Interior, I shouldn't be surprised that I really haven't done much with this pile. But I sorted through it last week and this tiny black-and-white print fascinated me. It truly is tiny, 2 inches by 2 inches a format you just don't see anymore outside of passport photos. I don't have a scanner, and my Nikon DX40 had a tough time finding a focal point -- although I'm sure a more skilled photographer could do better.

In its top two corners, the photo is stained yellow, apparently by scotch tape. A light crease remembers a one-time light bending, top-to-bottom, close to centre; another deeper crease traces a diagonal from just to the right of the left corner's tape stain, through my mother's face to end about midway up the right edge. Very faintly, beginning near the centre of the bottom edge, it's easy to make out the date: month, JUL, a punctuating dot, then the year. The latter is not as clear, with the top of the numerals rubbed away, but the first is clearly a 6; the second has a curve that could belong to either a 0, a 6, or even perhaps an 8. Looking at our ages here, though, especially figuring out which baby sibling my mother holds, I can easily confirm that the photo was developed in July 1960, probably not too long after it was snapped.

And if someone finds this in a box of old photos in a thrift shop decades from now, and turns it over, they'll see these names written in a hand obviously well practised in MacLean's Method cursive script: Tina, Frances, Mary & I, Miriam, Chris, Joel. Unless that finder is particularly sensitive, however, it's unlikely that their eyes will instantly prick with tears. Why do mine? Oh, so many reasons. . .

I'm moved, for one thing, at her effort. This would be even more true if I thought she'd done this when she first put the photo in an album, but I doubt that very much. By July 1960, as you can see from the photo, it's highly unlikely Mom had time for fiddling with organizing snapshots. More probable is that she wrote these names when she and my Dad sorted their lifetime of photos during his last years, years shadowed by the prostate cancer that eventually took him. They spent weeks and weeks sorting through albums and boxes and envelopes full of photos.  With most of the negatives long gone, they had many photos scanned and printed in multiples so that they were able to put together a small album or manila envelope for each of us, each with a representative series of shots taking us from infancy to young adulthood.


The feat might not seem so much now, when we digitally document our children's and grandchildren's development so eagerly. Even back in the height of Kodak culture and the days of the 8mm home movie, a celluloid record of childhood was significantly easier to manage, obviously, if there were only 2, 3, perhaps 4 children whose lives must be recorded. So many of us were camera-happy with our first, almost as much so with our second.  I think, though, I'm not atypical in feeling guilty that the four little albums that best record my son's middle-school years were put together by his friend's mom on the annual sailing weeks he was lucky enough to be included in.

Those names, then, the thought and effort toward the future that went into writing them, move me, prickle a warning of tears. Against their threat, I turn back to the front of the photo and study it again. As a measure to prevent tears, this doesn't work well. More prickling. Too many absences the photo reminds me of. Not only is my mother gone now, but so is my adopted sister Tina, there to my curly-headed right, on the left side of the photo, her arm outstretched behind her to the metal guardrail. My brother Joel stands stalwartly forward -- it looks as if this might have been one of those years when, despite my 15 months' seniority, he is taller than I am, stronger perhaps. Frustrating to one whose identity is built around being the oldest. . . Next to Joel, an image that also signals loss, that of my second brother, Chris, dead next February for twice as long as he lived, only 19 years. Not yet four, if my math is correct, in this photo, he has not yet had the first of the epileptic seizures that will hugely challenge my parents' lives for years to come. . .


So. . . One, two, three of those in the photograph have been swept from my life. My next-in-age sister, scuffing her toes into the dirt in front of Tina and me, would have just turned two; the baby sister in Mom's arms is one. Only Joel might help me remember what cat that might be and why I would be cuddling it, perhaps 400 kilometres from home, on a road trip that would clearly not include pets. These tiny gaps in memory, these trifles of disappeared knowledge, why should these trouble me, why do they induce such melancholy?

What I do remember of that car trip (but only if I'm remembering the right trip, one we made to visit my mother's sisters in Trail . . . perhaps, instead, this was a trip to visit friends my parents had made when she taught at a one-room First Nations school near Chase, a few years earlier, after my father was nearly killed, another complicated story to untangle from memory), what I do remember is , the difficult but dramatic road. I remember the tension emanating from the front seat as my father backed our car down the steep, narrow road at the approach of another vehicle, craning over his right shoulder rather than trusting the rear-view mirrors, the drop-off steep just beyond that metal guardrail., the switchback ribboning far down the mountain. What relief when he found room to squeeze into a widened roadside patch, the logging truck or car pulling trailer, even just another 50s-large vehicle sucking in its waist to graze past with only inches between us. I remember the gas tank of that Nash Rambler bottoming out on the potholed roads, remember hearing front-seat whispers about a leak, remember the crackling radio making static announcements about the forest fire raging in the not-far-enough distance. . . .

I can scarcely imagine my parents' fortitude in making that road trip on those hot dusty roads, long before air conditioning or seat belts or regularly placed gas stations and fast food stops. My mother, in 1960 with the six of us clustered around her, was 29, my father only four years older. I can scarcely imagine, and perhaps that's why I try so hard to remember. . .

And I suspect that some of this effort and some of the memories constitute some of what welled up and spilled over, through my recent road trip (with Pater) to a reunion of my mother's huge extended family. Passing through some of the same landscapes, those huge bald mountains, and remembering them, seeing photos of the little family, my parents, so impossibly sweet, so hopeful.  Those huge bald mountains. Here on the coast, we're too close to them, wedged against the sea. . . in the interior, there's room to get distance from them, appreciate their sere grandeur. . . .perhaps that's what I'm getting now. The distance to see. And the hugeness, the hugeness of the mountains they drove through.


31 comments:

  1. Thank you for sharing this: I cried too as your mother has the same handwriting as my mother! Maybe it was their age though my mother would have been 44 in 1960.
    I have my mother's letters but it was still a shock to see something new in what appeared to be her writing. My mother died in 1990.

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    1. It was a lovely cursive that generation penned--your mother was close to the age of my mother's sisters, who all had a similar "hand." So interesting that even though I know this was a widely shared style, I feel I know it as my mom's. Yet it's probably true that if I saw something your mother had written, I might have the same reaction you did. Thanks so much for leaving a comment that broadens the scope of my remembering.

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  2. It's a beautiful photo. It's possible that the sorting out of fragments - of feelings, of memories - might take some time.

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    1. Oh yes, it has already long occupied me before my mother, even before my father, died, and I suspect this will go on and on. I do hope that I will finally be able to do the sorting in writing, shaping it into something coherent and, possible, of interest to others.

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  3. Such a lovely, melancholy post.

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    1. Thanks, Lesley. The past. . . such a far-off country . . .

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  4. This is a lovely piece of writing. As always I enjoy the variety in your blog. It's always a pleasure to read. Iris H

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    1. You're so kind, Iris. The encouragement means a great deal to me.

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  5. When I looked at that photo I thought a variety of things (which then you corroborated or referenced):

    I knew which one you are. You look exactly the same! I noted that the tall boy must have been younger than you (as I know you are the oldest sibling) and thought about how funny it is that boys and girls grow at odds. I wondered how old your mother was there, with all of those children in that crazy, pioneer landscape! And I wondered if your sister to the left (now I know her name is Tina) was a cousin or a family friend because she looks unique amongst the bunch of you, all clearly "blood related".

    Just want to say that this is a fascinating photo with so much nuance. It's really affecting. And I love the story you tell to support it, to give me the context I would otherwise have to make up!

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    1. You're so perceptive. The whole process of moving from the visual to the verbal, of that process vis-à-vis the family photographs that we use to construct our life narratives, was actually the focus of my dissertation (although I applied it to fictional photographs) . . . it's strangely satisfying to take it on with the photographs in my own albums and tin boxes.
      Tina is a whole different narrative, my sweet troubled sister, an early example of what has been called "the 60s scoop". Unlikely I'll ever have the fortitude to write my part of that story here. . .

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    2. Ah, the sixties scoop. A challenging phenomenon and one I can imagine would be very tough to write about. I'm certain you'd do that topic justice though.

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  6. Can you imagine the work that was involved with those family driving trips? My parents had 4 children by 29 so we have similar photos in Mum's collection. There was always a car disaster because they didn't have any money to buy a reliable car. We broke down once on the old Hope Princeton. The losses of your siblings is very sad and explains the sorrow that you felt at the reunion.
    So many faces missing! Bon week-end.

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    1. Ah yes, the breakdowns on the old Hope Princeton. Wasn't that a highway! And the tension and excitement and drama of those family driving trips.
      Bon weekend à vous aussi!

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  7. Mater, I love this post. It is exactly the kind of writing I appreciate. And the photo is beautiful.

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    1. Thanks, Susan. That means a great deal coming from you, who have written so beautifully yourself in somewhat similar territory.

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  8. Dear Mater, this is a beautiful piece. My goodness, your emotions have been put through the wringer recently. I hope that writing about these things is helping you sort it all out.

    I am not familiar with the term 'sixties scoop', time to head to Wikipedia!

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    1. I do find that writing helps me sort out what I'm feeling and thinking -- and I enjoy the process. As for the 'sixties scoop,' it's a sad part of a long shameful history, and I've seen it from different personal perspectives. . . .

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  9. This fine post provides me with yet another burr under my bustle to sort through the mountain of photographs that now reside in bags, boxes, envelopes, drawers, closets, etc., so that my daughter won't have to. (Being a practical sort, she probably wouldn't anyway, especially since I haven't identified who is in each photo). But I keep putting it off. I do get weepy when reflecting on those I love who are gone, and on the past in general, and it sort of screws up my whole day. Plus, it saddens me to realize I am the only person living who recognizes many of them (no brothers or sisters with whom I shared a childhood, and a daughter born relatively late in life, also an only child); I'm afraid of asking myself, really, why am I doing this?

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    1. Even with a larger family than you, I think that the question you pose at the end of your comment is the one we all face. Will anyone care, after we're gone, about all of those we remember? and about our memories themselves, which, after all, make up much of what we are? I think that by writing some of this down, somehow maybe I'm trying to just get some of it down for myself, since I really can't control whether any of mine or of my grandchildren or whomever will care or will remember, into the future. But for now, it all matters to me, so I'm writing about it, gathering up what I can remember and putting it out there, even if it's just on a piece of paper in the box of photographs. And sometimes, yes, weeping as I do that. Thanks for the comment, Marsha -- love the expression of the burr under your bustle!

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  10. So touching. Having lost my mother this time last year, I am left with only the few photos I managed to "steal" following my dad's death in 2001. Sadly, my mom tossed the big box of snaps before my brother or I could rescue them. I treasure the pix I do have - they tell stories far deeper than noticed in a first glance. It warms my heart to read your musings as I have shared many of mine via my blog. Kindred spirits, of sorts?

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    1. Oh, that would be tough, to have had all the photos tossed. . . as you say, it must make the ones you have very precious. And yes, kindred spirits. . .

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  11. What a beautiful, moving post. I hope you can write at least some of it down for family - I know I treasure the scraps of family history that I've scrounged over the years ...

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    1. We've moved so quickly, in terms of generations, from transmitting family history orally to doing so through photos and writing. . . to where we are now with digital images and FB shares. . . I do wonder how much will go forward, and I must make sure I print out my scribbles and tuck them in a safe spot. . . .

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  12. My mother hated, absolutely hated being photographed. My dad and I did manage to put together an album of her life after she died, but there were so many gaps and years lost. Now I find myself acting the same way and trying to remind myself that my children might want to remember what I looked like. My family is small and there are few memories -- perhaps that is why I am building a family tree to find out where I came from. I hope you will pass those memories on to your children. Beautiful post -- thanks so much.

    Lynn

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    1. I don't think my mom was keen on having her picture taken either, but my dad was a hard man to resist. . . .
      I do think the memory/family tree project is a worthwhile one; at least once it's documented, our children have the choice of whether or not to bother with it. . .

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  13. That photo, so similar to many in my mother's albums - children gathered around in summer clothes, Mum always in a dress. How did they do it? Where did that come from? I sometimes think my mother's ability to keep on came from a terrible combination of faith, frustration, love and rage.
    Our mothers' handwriting is nearly identical. Taught by nuns?

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    1. I didn't remark on my mom's dress, but yes, she manages to look rather polished considering the circumstances, doesn't it?!
      The combination you describe is similar to my Mom's. . . and yes, she was taught by nuns. So was I, for quite a few years, but I never managed to get that handwriting, sadly . . .

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  14. Oh, the close consideration of all the small clues in this photograph and the soup of memory, trying to make sense of it all. I have found in retirement that memories come to me unbidden and I'll think about the same one for days...after a gap of 40 or 50 years. To travel with so many children, truly remarkable.

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    1. Soup of memory, what a nice metaphor!
      I almost think that's why I sometimes want to retire -- to have time to let the memories arrive, to think through them. . . Are you settling in to your retirement?

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  15. What a lovely post. The photo and the fragments of memories. You look exactly like yourself: your features, the angle in which you hold your head, your stance. Perhaps this is also true of the others but I cannot remark on that.

    When I was very young I found old photos endlessly fascinating, and then for a period in my early and mid adulthood I lost interest. Perhaps my mind was too occupied with other things. Recently however I have been gravitating back, trying to recall the small details, and when there are no memories, wonder and imagine who these people may have been.

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  16. Thanks, Mardel. I must say that within two years of this photo I began wearing glasses, as did my sister who is the baby here. Those make a difference to me, somehow, in the ways I see my younger self.

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I'd love to hear your response to my post. Agree, disagree, even go off on a tangent, I love to know you're out there, readers. Let's chat, shall we? I apologize, though, for the temporary necessity of the Word Verification -- spam comments have been tiresomely numerous lately, and I'm hoping to break that pattern.

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