By Jean Gordon
(I wrote this column in the fall of 1997 and ran across it the other day. Since it’s the dawning of spring and with it comes opportunities to spend time with family and friends outside enjoying the beauty of God’s creations and family reunions, I share it with Mountain Breeze readers this week. So much has changed in the last 25 years since this was published, but some things don’t change. Pictures are worth a thousand words and more).
You know how it is when you’re young, staying home alone while your parents work and they give instructions on what to get out of the house should it catch fire?
My sisters and I were told more than once to grab the collection of family photographs.
Down through the years the drawer where all the photographs were kept became much too small for the hundreds of photographs and my mama took on the task of organizing them.
Today there are volumes of photograph albums taking up several bookcase shelves at their home. The number increases constantly.
Writer Tom Bentkowski said pictures create a by-product we call nostalgia – a longing for how life was or how we said it had been – at the moment stopped by the camera.
He also said “in a world of information overload and emotional disconnection, these little scraps of paper are our last, best way to declare, ‘I was here. This was me.’”
And they supply information not available anywhere else.
There are far too many things I would not know, even about my immediate family, if it weren’t for pictures. I wasn’t quite 2 years old when my twin sisters were born. My older sister was almost four. I remember nothing about those days 43 years ago. But in my parents’ collections of photos are reminders. That was me and I was there.
I don’t remember watching over the twins but one picture tells me I did. It shows the four of us girls lying across a bed side-by-side. I was on one side of the twins and my older sister was on the other. There was no way they could roll past us to the floor.
That was me. I was there.
But a picture in the album tells the whole story of how my family had gone up to the mountains of Madison County, where my grandmother was born and her grandmother was buried. My older sister, an aunt and grandmother were all standing together in a sea of wildflowers on the side of the mountain at the graveyard.
And off to the side in the picture is this pouty-faced kid with hands folded across her chest, jaws puffed out like a bullfrog, looking meaner than a rattlesnake.
That was me. I was there. I never did like family reunions in the graveyard.
Pictures tell Christmas stories — of prayers, dinner and presents.
Baby dolls with diaper bags sitting on two tricycles for us older girls and two tiny dolls for our little baby sisters told of a pretty lucrative Christmas morning.
Stories of holidays, birthdays, weddings, reunions, school days, graduations, retirement parties and even hospital stays are best told in my photo collection.
My lone nephew doesn’t recall how brave he was at age 4 when he landed in the hospital for a week with a terrible sore throat, but a picture of him with IVs in his arms taps his memory.
A picture of a young niece standing on her tip-toes sipping cold water from a fountain off the Blue Ridge Parkway tells me the story of how that little girl grew up way too fast.
A picture of two little nieces — sisters — arms around each other tell the story that their relationship is forever.
Pictures remind us of how fast people can enter a life and how fast they might depart.
They tell of relationships — some that came and went like the rain, others that have lasted through a lifetime, so far.
And pictures are an avenue by which we can stay in touch with those who’ve gone on before. There is nothing quite as special as the last family photograph.
My mother is teased unmercifully for taking her camera everywhere she goes. If it is happening she captures it on film.
Although I didn’t inherit her energy to garden, sew clothes or write daily journals, I did inherit her joy of picture-taking.
There’s nothing like sitting in the company of a dozen photo albums — alone— and a whole lot of ooh-ing and ahh-ing, “that’s me . . . I was there.”
Jean Gordon spent almost 50 years in journalism and continues to freelance for several publications.