Photographic memory

I love photography even though I’ve never been as good at the art as I might have liked; might have been. I’m grateful — seriously, grateful — to Instagram, for allowing me an outlet for the scenes I capture in my mind’s eye and feel compelled to share, but hardly ever render to my satisfaction on a traditional camera.

I took photography as an elective in high school — learned how to develop my own film (not very well), and presumably how to properly use a camera. Whatever I learned there didn’t stick, however, and now I find more pleasure in photography as a researcher than as a voyeur. Although I imagine there is an element of voyeurism to my research, as well.

I love the evidence photography provides. I love the secrets revealed. I love the accidental body of information that corroborates or undermines the collective or individual stories we tell ourselves.

As I dig up old photographs in my cardboard boxes, or in the basement storage room of my mother’s house, I’m getting an education on the people I love … and who loved me. But almost as often as questions are answered or light is shed; there are mysteries. There are, in those photographs, chapters to the stories of my life that were never told to me.

On a recent trip to New Jersey to visit my family, I discovered a photo album my mother acquired when my Bubbi died a couple of years ago. The album chronicled a European trip — the only one, I think — my grandmother took with her aunt when she was in her late forties or early fifties.

Aunt Edna (L) and Bubbi

Aunt Edna (L) and Bubbi

Though I can’t be sure, I imagine this trip must have been monumental for my grandmother, who grew up poor in the Midwest; who was a small school girl when she was forced to care for her ill mother and eventually watch her die; who was shifted from relative to relative as her father journeyed from town to town for business. Her Aunt Edna (her mother’s sister) never married, and was very generous to my grandmother over the years (it’s believed Aunt Edna made a small fortune by investing early in Xerox). The two were very fond of each other. Beyond that, and beyond the little I know about Aunt Edna (she was a school teacher and an author), I don’t know much more about the intricacies of their relationship. I do remember my Bubbi, in her younger days, often going out west to Indiana to visit Aunt Edna. I also remember once meeting Aunt Edna myself in the lobby of the hotel in Philadelphia for which my grandmother worked for many years: She was perched on a velvet-lined settee and looked like an Aunt Edna.  She called me Jennifer, as did most of my grandparents’ friends.

The pages of the photo album my Bubbi created are filled mostly by blurry, over-exposed shots of the landscape, of the sites, of the Coliseum, Venice, the streets of Paris, and presumably, the Alps. There are only three photographs of Bubbi in the album and four or five of Aunt Edna. There is one of somebody’s hand — opening up a compact, perhaps? Getting ready to put on lipstick? — as the other snapped a shot of windmills out the window of a tour bus.

bubbi in europe windmills

There are no captions. No notes on the backs of the matte photographs. No written word at all. There are a few blank postcards — one with a watercolor of Buckingham Palace; another from an Italian resort.

What do I learn about my Bubbi from this album? Other than the fact that she was more traveled than I thought, I am presented with more questions than answers.

Did she slide the photos in under the cellophane and never look at them again?

Did she take the album out, every year on her birthday, reminisce and long for a different sort of life?

Was she grateful for this trip? Satisfied? Or did it only give her a taste for more?

I knew my Bubbi pretty well as far as Bubbis and granddaughters go. I took an interest in her life while she was still with it enough to recall it. But she never told me about the trip to Europe she once took with Aunt Edna. Never recalled the windmills or the Hotel Napoleon or the view from the Spanish Steps.

Of course, there are so many stories we never share; never tell. Not even the ones we love. Not even the ones who ask.

In fact, it’s often the stories closest to our hearts we keep for ourselves.

=== === ===

 

If you liked this post, you might also like this one; also about Bubbi and about photographic evidence.

 

 

 

First love

Among my cardboard boxes, there is another. It’s plastic. A clear Tupperware container with a blue cover marked “Jen’s papers.”

I laugh a little at this because the markings on the masking tape are in my mother’s handwriting and I would have expected it to read “Jennifer’s papers.”

But Jen is shorter than Jennifer, shorter than Jenny, shorter than any of the names I answered to during the time of the papers. And easier to write on a label.

I opened this container a few months ago when the shipment arrived, and was first struck sick by the smell, a strong combination of mildew and 30-year-old paste.

I quickly secured the top back on  (imagining my own ironic, horrible scifi death by spores) and put it back on the pile of boxes for later review.

A bit heartbroken, I intended to throw the whole thing away. Clearly the papers inside were ruined; forgotten leftovers stored too long. But before I got rid of all of it I wanted to document the contents.  After all, my mother took care to fill this container over the course of a decade and to rescue it — not once, but many times — from basement catastrophe (flood, hurricane, divorce).

Despite potential ruin, after all these years, the Tupperware reached its destination: in the hands of grown-up Me. It would be a shame not to unload its cargo. Also, and most important, as a mother who hoards, I know well the affection wrapped up in the saving of those papers.

I approached the container again this week, when I had a few hours to myself during the day and when the weather was mild enough to be able to go through them in fresher air outside.

I took out our good camera and prepared to archive my findings.

I knew that most of what I’d find would be handwriting exercises, A+ papers, and art projects. Nothing extraordinary, I imagined, would be discovered inside. What could I possibly have produced in elementary school that would elicit any deeper emotions than sentimentality? On the other hand, my boxes  constantly surprise me and this one was no different.

Among the findings:

  • My first voting ballot — indecision written all over it — from a Weekly Reader in 1980. Anderson or Reagan for the Win? I had checked off both, though I wonder if the Reagan was an afterthought as I remember distinctly wanting Anderson.
  • A report on Voyager 2 when it was still hovering near Saturn
  • A now-vintage souvenir postcard sent to me and my brother (addressed to Miss Jennifer and Master Jason) from Disneyland
  • And, a drawing I made when I was three or four in which my mother’s image was a presence greater than anyone else on page, larger than me, larger than life.

I also found love letters.

Between me and Mrs. Aducat.

I completely forgot loving Mrs. Aducat.

Mrs. Aducat, who wasn’t even my homeroom teacher, not even the woman I spent most of my day with in first grade, but simply my reading teacher. The woman who taught me language, sentence construction, how to express myself with carefully crafted words.

Based on the persistence with which I sought her love, my affection was strong.

ms aducat i love you

Over the course of months, I wrote many love notes to Mrs. Aducat on the back of my writing exercises.

And she wrote me back.

“I love you, too, sweetie,” she wrote in red cursive on the back of one.

And with a smiling heart on another.

i love you too jenny

“Yes!” she answered me with an exclamation point one time when I asked her if she loved me too.

I even made it simple for her once. YES or NO, I wrote under two boxes. An ultimatum, perhaps?  If so, she took the bait and checked off YES. “Lots and lots,” she wrote underneath it in her red pen.

I am struck by this.

I am struck by the love given me by a grownup; not a relative, just a woman paid to teach me to read.

And I am struck by the unrestrained expression and bold audacity with which I expressed my love for her and asked for it in return.

Oh, to love and be loved again — unabashedly, without reserve — as I did, and was, when I was seven.

= = =

This is one in a series of essays inspired by my cardboard boxes. If you like this post, and want to know how it began, read A Case for Hoarding. One post in the series, Note to Self,” was recently featured on Freshly PressedAdditional posts are tagged “the boxed set series“.

Name this photo

Name this photo

Music is a Gift with Legs

I’m a big believer in the magic of books, music, and people falling into your lap when you least expect them to and when you are most ready to appreciate their messages.

(For this reason, I’m about to download The Happiness Project since three people in as many days have referenced it to me.)

But just because the wisdom fortuitously appears at just the right time doesn’t mean its vessel hasn’t fallen into your lap previously … maybe even shimmied back and forth a bit; stirred almost otherworldy sensations down there. Somehow, though, you overlooked the deeper message the first time around.

What’s even more incredible is when the words of comfort or inspiration have been there all along — in your CD cabinet, let’s say — just waiting to be understood.

There all the time

There all the time

This is the case with my collection of Grooves compilation CDs that were a hand-me-down gift from a boyfriend’s mom in the mid-90s.

I have seven of them still. Two I’ve loved since college, but the rest mostly gathered dust buried there at the bottom of my alt/folk rock section. This past week I’ve been listening to volume five (one of the dusty ones) on my way to work and school. It’s been a week of transition, and a week in which I need to feel understood, and loved.

It’s been, as I like to say (quietly to myself), a sing-with-the-windows-down kinda week.

Here’s the playlist of volume five:

Hold Me Up – Velvet Crush

Layer By Layer – Steve Wynn

You R Loved – Victoria Williams

Tell Everybody I Know – Keb Mo

Partisan – Katell Keineg

Holding Back The River – Luka Bloom

Who’s So Scared – Disappear Fear

Dreams In Motion – Felix Cavaliere

Good Times – Edie Brickell

Mockingbirds – Grant Lee Buffalo

Send Me On My Way – Rusted Root

Her Man Leaves Town – Rebecca Pidgeon

Two Lovers Stop – Freedy Johnston

You And Eye – David Byrne

Oye Isabel – Iguanas

And If Venice Is Sinking – Spirit Of The West

Century Plant – Victoria Williams

I’ve had this CD in my possession for two decades (the copyright says 1994 on the disk jacket), but I’m only now finding meaning in the messages.

Only now.

This is what good music does to a soul: Seeks it out and seeps in deep just when the spirit craves it most.

And the songs, just as they were advertised at the time, are fresh. juicy. like new. 

Gifts …even in the form of hand-me-down compilations CDs … have legs, I guess. And can walk a long, long distance in order to deliver a much-needed message.