When you turn 40, you get fewer wishes, more reassurances. My favourite was from my friend Doc who said, “Memory loss helps us forget why we were dreading age before.” Given my age and recreational proclivities, short-term memory loss is not just a running joke. It’s a reality. Which is alright because in these times of compulsive documentation… the nature and role of memory is beginning to change.
When I pitched this idea to an editor, three years ago, about what the digital era is doing to our memories, she breezed over it. I wish I had been pushier. It will soon be an important discussion, and not just for parents.
Our children, so religiously documented, have few tangible photographs to browse.
In my pre-digital childhood (and even early motherhood), our memories were reinforced by physically leafing through photo albums, incidents captured on film becoming clearer over time. Incidents left just to memory, turning and morphing, bobbing up each time, ephemeral.
Our children, so religiously documented, have few tangible photographs to browse. Each time we upgrade a computer, we throw another pile of photos into that digital landfill we promise ourselves we will sift through and take prints from. I very rarely go through old computer folders full of pictures and videos with my kids. I wonder how it will affect their memories.
As for remembering my own childhood… Well, let me put it this way.
You may recall this old thing called the Laughing Gallery; a tent, dark and hot inside, its felt carpet worn thin, shiny, close to the point of combustion, a barrage of canned laughter ricocheting out of loudspeakers startling sympathetic giggles out of most people.
The funny bit was where the corridors, lined with warped mirrors, contorted the reflections of your body, your siblings’ bodies, and most hilariously, your mother’s body into fluid, asymmetrical images. Bug eyes and pointy bums, a family of spent balloons, ‘oh look, we’re even fatter here!’, ‘I look so slim, I’m taking this mirror home!’ The loud laughter, the heat, the low light, the ridiculous poses… After a bit, one of the youngest would refuse to be satisfied with this low-level entertainment and proceed to bawl well over the decibels of the loudspeaker. We’d emerge from the dark interiors blinking into the evening sun, sweaty, laughing, unable, if we had to, to adequately explain what exactly had amused us so much.
I think remembering your childhood is exactly like that; snapshots, flashes, something in the corner of your eye that moves too fast to catch. “Take a picture with your mind,” I’ve heard my mother say. Take a picture.
“Take a picture with your mind,” I’ve heard my mother say. Take a picture.
As a child, getting photographs taken was what we’d call Docu-Momentous. Whether you had one at home or you had to toodle down to the local studio, Cameras were for special occasions. At 4, I had to take a picture for something official. I remember my mother combing my hair, the photographer speaking to me very kindly, his rough hands unfamiliar under my arms as he put me down gently on a high stool, my parents standing behind him smiling. I was absolutely frozen.
Days later, my parents drove past the studio and saw a large frame in the window with my picture in it. They stopped, chuckled proudly. Then my mother said, “Well, it’s very nice he thinks she’s cute but he can’t keep that in the window for everyone to look at my child.” My dad nodded and went in, paid for the photographs and as we drove away, I saw the kind photographer taking the frame off the window shelf. If I see that little black and white photo now, my memory drums up the requisite 1000 words.
A few years later, on a school picnic to a lighthouse, only two or three of the children carried instant cameras. I had the smallest one, with only 16 frames. I was harangued and pushed and coerced into taking photographs of the other kids. By the time we got to the top of the lighthouse, I had no film left. I don’t think my father even bothered to develop the roll. I haven’t thought about that in years but I remember feeling powerless and angry.
In the early nineties, film, cameras, and processing became cheaper and my siblings and I were given access to a camera and a ration of film. We went nuts! We did fashion shoots at home and turned paparazzi on unsuspecting passers-by. There were a lot of pictures of peoples’ bottoms which stopped when one day my father came home with about 24 of them and gave us one of his rare scoldings.
The cupboard, perhaps in your mother’s house, full of old photo albums, is like the wardrobe that leads to the Narnia of our childhoods. There are the big ornate albums – your parents’ wedding, the eldest child’s first birthday party, Christenings, a big family holiday… (as the family grew, the younger siblings didn’t quite have the luxury or burden of intense focus. My younger sister and brother, Irish twins, ten months apart, barely make an appearance in early albums; parents probably worked more on the present of feeding and clothing rather than documenting for posterity.)
But it is in the boxes marked ‘miscellaneous’ that the memories and lore combine, the tiny prints, the ones that didn’t make the cut; the sepia out-takes of your parents’ youth, your childhood.
Here is Aunty Paula, exactly as you remember her, big hair, kaftan, glamourously smiling at someone out of frame. There is Uncle Carl, slumped on the sofa, a wookie of a 70’ s man, tired from helping my mother cook. Look at my mother, her hair grown till her hips (she had short hair as long as I consciously remember), pregnant with me, looking beautiful and like a girl in love, into the camera, held by my father.There is the first car, a Beetle.
There are all the pictures my mother took, of her children, like some sort of mommy blogger or instagrammer before her time.
There are all the pictures my mother took, of her children, like some sort of mommy blogger or instagrammer before her time. A beautiful sunset on an Omani shore, that comes with the story of how we didn’t get to the beach on time. Us cycling into the far distance, taken while my mum was holding our newborn twin siblings in her arms (it’s not a great photo). My dad barbequing lobsters in the backyard, the second last time we saw my mother’s soul-sister, Aunty Marie before she moved back to the Philippines.
Here’s a few from ‘when we were poor’. Here’s the series of me always hiding my face (as Supreme Awkward Teenager). Here is the family photo at the studio where we all got the giggles, then my mum shouted at us and we had a massive fight and that is the face we’re making.
Here is a picture of me and my boyfriend. He is drunk and wearing a Nirvana t-shirt. I am sweaty and slightly distracted. It is the end of May, at a terrace party. I have turned 21, my mother has called me the night before, long-distance, to give me contraception advice. I have laughed and made loud retching sounds and this may be a portrait of the official end of my childhood.
I like looking at old pictures. Not just mine. I’ve spent hours looking through my friends’ old photo albums, grandmothers as young women, formal, in their church clothes, grandfathers on their wedding day, their hair pomaded, postures stiff with the Docu-momentous. I like being introduced to the colourful stories that accompany the black and white images, family gossip and disintegrating grudges and the foundations of old, old love.
After my mother died, the first time we had a big laugh was just days later, talking about our childhood. Adult siblings stuck in that weird childish forlorness that fills you when your mother disappears, we bent over laughing at stories grown funnier over time, the Laughing Gallery of our collective childhood memory a hot, dimly lit getaway from the bereftness of the present.
We didn’t need the pictures. It was all there. Curated by time for relevance and hilarity and meaning, the stories still exist. And if you’ve been clever enough to hang on to the people you shared your childhood with, your memories are safe.
Maybe we ignore that massive computer folder full of old pictures… because we never needed it at all.