Old photos show the family life I could have had

Back in the 80s being “Grandma Sue” with Stephanie while baby Brandon snoozes. What are we looking at? I don’t remember.

You know how you move one thing in the house and then you have to move something else to make room for it, and pretty soon you have all this stuff that needs a new home and then you sit down in the middle of the mess to sort through old photos? Yeah. That’s what I was doing last night.  

I’m trying to thin out my possessions, so there was a point in sorting through packets of photos from the 70, 80s, and 90s that I never put into albums. They were all pre-digital, taken with cameras that used film.

I was rearranging my stuff because I didn’t feel like writing. I didn’t feel like doing anything. I got some bad news from the vet the other day about Annie–that bump on her butt isn’t just a bump. It’s cancer, and there’s a problem with her heart, too.

We don’t have a lot of details yet, but I have been in near-constant caregiver mode with this dog since she almost died right after Christmas 2020, and now it’s getting bad again. As she wanders around with the big e-collar, running into everything and leaving blood wherever she sits, she interrupts my sleep, my meals, and my work. Crash, boom, Mom! Oh, wait, I’m not her mom, but I do call myself that. Don’t tell anyone. So, there’s that, and I’ve had a cold, and the weather here has been one disaster after another. We have had floods, snow, landslides, hurricane-force winds, and now there’s another flood watch. I’m ready to get in my car and drive to Arizona. 

Back to the old photos. I found quite a few that I could throw away, bland scenery shots, an endless stream of ocean photos, flowers, somebody’s cat. When I took them, I thought they were artistic, but the ones I want to keep are the ones with people in them, especially family. I had a family once upon a time. I had my parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, my brother and his wife and kids, and my husband, his parents, his kids and his grandkids. For a while, they were my kids and grandkids, too. The difference between me and friends my age is that their family photos go on as the babies keep coming while mine stopped around the time I switched to digital photos.

What happened? People died, lots of people died. But also, we moved to Oregon, 700 miles away from all but one of Fred’s kids. Plus, my sweet husband put out zero effort to keep in touch. It was always me saying, “Hey, it’s Michael’s birthday. We should call him.” or “Hey, what shall we get the grandkids for Christmas?” Beyond things like gifts and cards, I didn’t know how to go about getting close to the step-family. But I look at these photos of these gorgeous human beings and I remember days when I thanked Fred for giving me a family. If we hadn’t moved to Oregon, if we had tried harder, would they still be in my life now that he is gone? Maybe. Maybe not. I feel like I flunked step-parenting.

When you have your own children, the connection is made by biology. Even if you don’t get along, they are always your children. As the older generation passes on to the next life, there’s another group of young people coming up to fill the hole they leave behind. A person my age shouldn’t be sitting on the hearth looking at old pictures with no one for company but a deaf dog with a cone on her head.

Did I make two huge mistakes in my life, committing to a life without children of my own and moving away from the family I had, or is this the way it was meant to be? Life in Oregon has been good. I have had experiences and made friends I wouldn’t have had if we had stayed in San Jose doing the same things forever. We make choices, and then we have to live with them.

I had fun looking at the pictures. I see in the old ones that I was pretty in my 20s, 30s and even 40s–and a lot skinnier. I need to go on a diet! But I’m glad I have these photos, every one of them attached to a memory, a time I enjoyed with our combined families. It just ended too soon.

Working as a reporter at the Milpitas Post in California in the 1970s

What will happen to these pictures when I die? They’ll probably end up in a dumpster, but I have them to enjoy now, and that matters. 

You know that old Crosby, Stills & Nash song “Love the One You’re With?” Maybe that’s the key. Whatever family you have around, in-laws, stepchildren, nieces and nephews, cousins, friends, whatever, treasure them. Love them. They will not be perfect. But they’re yours, at least for now. As you go into a new year, think about what you always wanted to be when you grew up. Was it a mom or dad or was that just an assumed detour from what you really wanted? What photos do you want to be looking at when you’re looking 70 in the face like me?

BTW, I love this photo of me at one of my first newspaper jobs. I was HAPPY. Perhaps that was a clue to where I was headed all along. I loved mothering my dolls when I was a kid, but my Barbie was always going to be a writer or a singer. I never considered making her a mom. Go figure.  

Happy New Year. Forgive me for being a little nuts. As always, your comments are welcome.  

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11 thoughts on “Old photos show the family life I could have had

  1. When I sorted through all the old pix I inherited when my sister died, the process turned into a full chapter in my memoir plus a stand-alone essay recently appearing in “Groundwaters,” called “Looking at Myself, Looking for Myself.” Doing this does make the memories flood in and rematerializes them, grounds them in a space and place. It’s a great stimulus for reassessing moments from the past. Your feelings about the big choice you made (or was made for you) stand as a trope, really, for all diverging paths in one’s life. Every decision had other options, which, as Jorge Borges illustrates in “The Garden of Forking Paths,” might have opened an entirely different universe of being, a very different life–which could have been much better, perhaps, or indeed much worse. I think it’s best to try to be here now. Some time ago I realized that I made every choice with the best intentions and the best information I had at that time. I forgave myself for whatever errors I made and unintended consequences I could neither have predicted nor controlled. We cannot control the past nor can we change it. We CAN control how we think about the past and what we do now with our present and our future.

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  2. For various reasons I’m so terribly sad today. I can see I’m not alone. Just offering virtual hugs to you Sue. And for sweet Annie.

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  3. Speaking of family, the returned Christmas card from Conde was in my mail box today. Davenport, IA. I did hear from him last year.
    Adrienne

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  4. This bit, I loved – “I have them to enjoy now, and that matters.” That does matter. It’s a good lesson for many of us. And that photo of you as a young reporter. It’s gorgeous in so many ways!

    The bit about you flunking step-parenting. It sounds to me that you didn’t. It sounds also that your step-kids (as adults) flunked caring for their step-mother, the woman their father loved and who loved them and their children.

    Sending hugs for you and your Annie. I’m so sorry you’re both going through this.

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  5. Happy New Year to you and great photos of an interesting life.

    Photos are so emotive and powerful; it is easy to think “how did I get here?!” or “what if?” even if life played to your plans. Hindsight and nostalgia are overwhelmingly powerful but we work with our abilities, limitations and knowledge at the time. The past has the power because it is set in stone, predictable and safe in that respect. It is so easy to be harsh on ourselves in retrospect. The present and future have always somewhat scared me and I’ve had to force myself to be positive and brave rather than fear it at times. I like the advice to do something that scares/pushes you every day.

    Life is half chance and we are all dragged along for the ride, I think you slowly realise that the older you get and when you are young you either think you know things or life will happen in a simplistic way. The road is often good but has twists and turns we can’t always predict or control. It is certainly a ride…I wish you lots of good things in 2022.

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  6. This post made me think of a quote from a Star Trek episode: ” It is possible to commit no mistakes and still lose. That is not a weakness. That is life.” Life didn’t turn out the way you might have hoped, but you did the best you could with the info you had at the time. I am sure that you had a lot of interesting experiences as a young reporter. That is a cool photo.

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  7. Great photos, Sue! I too have tons & tons of photos — my own & those my childfree-by-choice sister & I will inherit from my parents (who also have my grandmother’s photos…!). I’ve always tried to share/give doubles (when we did prints) of the ones with our nephews to my sister-in-law — but I do wonder what will happen to the ones of dh & me, and me & my family of origin (which ends with my sister and me). I suppose my cousins and/or their kids might want ones with our common relatives in them — but would they want ones of me in my high school graduation gown, for example? I don’t know.

    I wonder if your stepkids would like to have those photos someday? No matter how they feel about you, they’re in some of them and so is their dad… and even if they’re not interested, their kids might be. Just a thought. I’m enough of a genealogist & preservationist that I hate to see photos go to a dumpster. 😉

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    • Thank you for your comment. I did already send a lot of photos to my stepkids and to my husband’s brother after my husband died, but there are more they might want. Something to think about. As for us in our graduation gowns, those probably should be dumpstered.

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