Granny bought a Polaroid camera somewhere around 1978 or 1979. We thought it a magical experience, to take a photo and have the image slide out and come to life as we watched. They said that it developed faster (or was it more evenly?) by waving it back and forth like a paper fan. Granny called each family unit together to sit in and around the orange and brown striped velour recliner. Every Christmas, each group took their turn, and then all of the grandkids sat on the green sofa and spent another sheet of the film. Two packs captured the whole gathering time–present opening, family photos, and a few extra images because one of the cousins took a turn without permission. 20 images.
Because of those photos, I can scan the room outside of the white frame and see the orange bulbs on Granny’s plastic window candelabras and her tree with the same ornaments she used every year. I see my cousins and their parents. I hear them. My grandfather’s voice, my aunt’s specific laugh, the rise and fall of conversation at the farm table in the kitchen. The smell of cigarette smoke sneaking into the familiar and singularly distinct smell of Granny’s green beans simmering on the stove, and turkey and mashed potatoes and corn and the celery and onion in the stuffing.
Because of photos from the Kodak Instamatic we used at Nannie’s, I remember who sat around the dining room table in her tiny house. I can hear the porcelain bell ringing, calling us to the breakfast feast. Angel biscuits, sausage, bacon, scrambled eggs. On Dad’s side of the family, lots of older cousins provided me with people to look up to and emulate. I watched how they dressed, how the older girls wore their hair, how they talked to one another and to us younger ones. I remember them like that, how the photos in old boxes show me.
A few years back, maybe six or seven years ago, I realized that my Polaroid and Kodak images likely didn’t match the memories and photographs of my immediate or extended family. Or my school mates in grade school and high school and college. Or in the churches we’ve served. Or how my children took in their childhood.
Standing there in a therapist’s office and grasping this truth was both liberating and sad. Sad, because I had not known or understood that any shared memories weren’t experienced in the same magical way. Liberating, because I was able to release the persons in my memories to be who they are as growing and evolving humans, as individuals with their own photographs.
My daughter bought a newer version of the Polaroid last month. I look at her photos and recognize in a fresh way that it’s just a piece of the whole, like any photograph.We take photos to remember, to mark the time so we don’t forget. We pull them out later. We laugh, perhaps mock our fashion sense. Or we cry and make note of a gift that was and is no more. I pray for a wide grace for photos I keep close. May I hold a grace wider still for the people in them, for the ways they perceive things, for the memories inside the frame, for the realities outside the frame, and for the host of things provoked at the sight of the images.