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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Pictures of Kids? Not So Much

We sat around a table at the senior center last week passing around photos for a writing exercise. I was a stranger in this group that meets every week. I had come to check out the visiting writing teacher. My seat faced a wall-sized mirror, so I was looking at myself all the time, feeling too young and overdressed for this group.

The people were incredibly friendly, but I soon felt like an outcast in another way: Most of the photos included children. Kids lined up along a fence. Kids posing at Christmas with Grandma and Grandpa. Kids in the front row of family reunion pictures. You know the kind, where the original couple is surrounded by the many generations. Yeah. I don’t have a lot of those pictures. My albums are full of dogs, cats, buildings, beaches, mountains, and flowers.

The picture I brought, which inspired some smiles, showed my first husband, my father and my brother all leaning down looking into the back of the VW bus that we took on our first honeymoon. That was in 1974, when I was 22 and had no doubts about being a mom someday, and no clue that the marriage wouldn’t last. The honeymoon, a road trip all over the western U.S. and Canada, was great. At home, we didn’t do so well.

But back to the pictures. I suspect most of us don’t keep actual printed photo albums anymore. I don’t, although I have quite a few from the past. We store pictures on our phones, tablets and computers and post them on social media, but it’s still the same. My friends show me pictures of their children and grandchildren. I show them pictures of my dog or the weird bear statue somebody draped in garlands this Christmas (Bondage Bear, I called him). I have some pictures of my nieces and nephews, but I don’t see them often, and it’s not the same.  I take a lot of pictures to accompany my blogs and other writing projects. But I’ll never line my children up on the front porch for the annual first-day-of-school photo. Or pose with their kids at Christmas.

What does that leave me to share or to save in albums? And who would I save those albums for? When I die, who is going to care?

I rarely get my own picture taken. Most of the pics I put online are selfies or photos I paid a professional to take. No one seems anxious to save my image or put it on the wall like the 1800s picture of my great-grandma Louise that I study at my dad’s house, looking for features that have been passed down, trying to sense the kind of person she was. Does anyone believe all those Facebook pictures will even exist in a hundred years? (remember floppy disks? Gone!)

I have been thinking about piecing together a family-tree style collection of photos of all my loved ones, especially those who have died, so I can look at them all in one place. The tree will not go on beyond me. My line goes only backward, not forward. I’m a twig that will never reproduce. So who would I do it for? Me. It would make me happy, and that’s good enough.

My brother, the only person with exactly the same ancestors, might be interested, but he is surrounded by children and grandchildren these days. His branch of the tree is getting heavy with new branches.

Back to that photo I passed around. The seniors got a laugh at the old VW with its “lawnmower” engine in the back. My ex, shirtless, squatted in front of the engine. He was the real mechanic in the group, but my father, still dressed up from the wedding, was bent over supervising while my brother, back in jeans and tee shirt, stood back, looking worried. It was his bus that we were about to drive all over hell and gone with “Just Married” painted in blue all over it and only three working cylinders. I could write a lot more about that picture than I could about yet another string of blonde, blue-eyed Oregon kids.

So what do you take pictures of? Do you put them in albums or other kinds of collections? Who will care about them when you’re gone? Does it matter? Please share in the comments.

 

 

 

 

 

Babies, babies, babies!

At a party last week, one of the women brought her six-week-old son. He’s a cute little critter, but I had no experience to share, and I was not one of the women reaching out to hold him. People’s cats always wind up in my lap, but babies, nope.

A few nights later, I had dinner at a home of a woman in my church choir. I had already seen her personalized “Nana” license plate, but when I walked in the door, her walls were so plastered with photos of her children and grandchildren it made me dizzy. The other guest, who always brings her granddaughter to church with her, cooed appropriately, but I immediately knew we wouldn’t have much to talk about. As she gave the tour of the house, we had to hear who was in each picture and what they were doing, and I began to regret turning down the glass of wine she had offered. It’s a lot like those folks who send Christmas newsletters telling all about kids we’ve never met and never will. When we finally sat down to chat, I summoned the calico cat to sit in my lap. I loved the vibration of her purring against my thighs even as my sinuses clogged up with allergies. Thank God for cats.