I've recently undertaken a project to digitize 30 years of family photos. I grew up in the 80s and 90s, took my teenage selfies on disposable cameras, and had previously left all those memories to gather dust. The boxes have been passed between my mother, my sister, and myself - whoever had the storage space - unopened for years, but too precious to be thrown away. Until now. It's been a weird walk down memory lane, bittersweet at times, but I'm so glad I finally did it. I've found myself trying to recontextualize who these figures from the past were as people, what everyday problems they faced, what realities of adulthood were universal back in the 1980s, or even the 1950s. Despite any subsequently shattered innocence, we had a good childhood, a caring extended family, and parents who really did their best.
Admittedly, I'm coming at this from the perspective of a generation that is likely to never have children, never settle down or afford a permanent home. We've all seen the studies - plummeting birth rates, the majority of Americans living paycheck to paycheck, drowning in student loan debt, while the powers that be continue to squeeze us for every drop. I'd love to do "normal" things like raise a pack of polite little mini-mes, take family vacations, celebrate life events, and take gratuitous photos of their school concerts and sports games. Alas, I'm all too aware of how unsustainable that dream has become. The majority of my friends are putting it all off, just trying to keep our heads above water. In the grand scheme of things, if those of us keen enough to understand the impracticality keep failing to contribute to the gene pool, what might that mean for the population?
I do have enormous respect for those who are managing to raise a family in the current state of the world, though. What you sacrifice to maintain their innocence but also make your kids aware and well-positioned to face the world is astounding. I don't envy you the difficult conversations about dealing with police or predators, the realization that your newborn has already been assigned debt for their hospital bills, and all of the other realities of parenthood that I can't begin to understand. You're amazing. The future is yours.
[I'll stop being so negative now. Need to make peace with the fact that I'll never be the matriarch of a powerful bloodline. Alas, not everyone can be Olena Tyrell.]
But the 80s and 90s were good times. After so many years, it's a bit jarring to see tangible evidence of those memories. Some capture specific moments, stories that have been told over and over again through the decades. There are photos of the family reunion that almost capsized a pontoon boat, the dance recital where I ripped the tail off my friend's mouse costume and started crying on stage, and the time that Grandpa tried to teach us how to fish and got himself hooked (below). It also strange to see photos of physical items and get a sudden sensation of what a certain blanket felt like, or what it smelled like inside our camping tent, or thinking that that stuffed animal used to look a lot bigger.
When it comes to the people, I'm actively trying to see them as fellow humans instead of these looming protector figures, untouchable bastions of "adulthood." That doesn't actually exist. We're all just doing the best we can. I'm trying to imagine what they might have been struggling with, how I would have felt if I was balancing work and kids and everything else, but there are also some moments of real joy - family events, wedding days, simple everyday moments of intimacy. I was lucky to grow up with an extended network of cousins, aunts, uncles, even great uncles, second cousins, and others whose exact relation is still a bit murky. Maybe it does take a village. I certainly feel like I benefited from that. I also get a kick out of photos where my parents are doing yard work, burdened with armfuls of kids and kid accessories, or where the house is a bit messy. Why is there a floor sander in the middle of the room? Is anyone gonna sort that mail? Tell that kid of yours to pick up her damn toys - and I can say that because she is me. The little things are arguably the most relatable.
Speaking of relatable, it's nice to know that people still took gratuitous photos of their food thirty years before Instagram. I also discarded dozens of photos of zoo animals, almost certainly dead by now. But it was a fun study in my sister's and my fledgling attempts at photography. We didn't get our first digital camera until the end of high school and I can't help but wonder how those years might have been different if social media had been a factor. I'm kind of glad it wasn't. Disposable cameras still hold a place in my heart thanks to their constant presence during youthful adventuring, but it must have sucked to wait a week only to discover that your selfie was crap. There were also random artsy shots in the bin - fun with focus, sudden arial angles, extreme foreground juxtaposition - that have my father's stamp all over them. He was the original family photog, a director by trade, and it's bittersweet to think of what he might have gotten up to with current technology.
That's a big one for me. My father died when I was fifteen, just as we were starting to relate to each other as fully formed humans. From what I understand, his afflictions were similar to my own - depression, chronic stomach issues, and a dark sense of humor that I've (admittedly) tried to emulate. It's tempting to want to deify the missing parent, but I'm very aware of how much my mother sacrificed to pull us through, even before the long years of his illness and becoming a single parent to two teenage girls. I look at both of them with a desire to understand. These two humans made two other humans who I know pretty damn well. The threads are there. I definitely have her nose and his cheeks. I get flustered by stress just like Mom does, but then both of us dig in and persevere. I excuse myself being an occasional snarky ass because it makes me feel closer to Dad. But who were they before us? What's going on behind those frozen eyes? I'll never know, really, but looking through all of these photos has pulled the threads a little tighter.
There were also some historical goodies in those boxes. Kodak slides were a thing that I never knew existed. From what I gathered holding them up to the light and squinting (the viewer needs batteries), a lot of them are my parents' wedding and honeymoon pictures. That's some pretty big stuff to be relegated to obsolete technology. No matter the scanner settings, I couldn't get them to transfer, so it's back in the box until there's a better way. I also found Dad's baby book, which my grandmother started keeping in 1949 - almost seventy years ago! It's easy to forget because my memories of my dad are frozen in his late forties and Mom is very much still Mom. But both they and my grandparents lived through some shit. Those faded images with their old cars and old clothes are downright historical. I also uncovered my grandparent's wedding invitation (1948) and a large stack of cards congratulating them on their first grandchild - me! It's touching that my grandmother kept them, especially since she died when I was young and I never really got to know her.
There are also family dynamics that I'm vaguely aware of, things that I was too young to understand at the time. I've always been closest with my mother's side of the family. They lived nearby and the grandkid squad was four girls, all fairly close in age. They were as much my sisters as my actual sister. The cousins and grandparents on my father's side lived further away and were more distant in age, though they definitely grew into some excellent adults. I also get the feeling that my mom didn't entirely get on well with my dad's parents, or at least my grandfather. Maybe I'm wrong, maybe it didn't really start until later, but there was a big falling out after my dad died. Then came the cross-country move that kept us apart physically. It all worked out, but the vague awareness of that tension has spawned some retroactive wondering as I look at earlier interactions. The fact that I'm speculating, though, is a testament to how well they shielded us. Crowding into an apartment in a strange city (to be near a specialist) and watching someone you love slowly shrivel away is a powder keg of a situation. That they managed to create any semblance of normalcy for my sister and I during that time is amazing.
Overall, it's been a nostalgic adventure that had me cackling as I unearthed new treasures. The extended family has also started a genealogy group on Facebook that has been turning up old immigration documents and other things that I've never seen or known about. Maybe, in a way, this has been an outlet for not having cute kid photos of my own - my new family photos are 80% dogs - but the memory of these younglings is definitely worth saving. I suppose as we get older we develop a desire to understand the past, not to obsess over it, but to appreciate where we come from and the hard work that previous generations put in to get us here. I finally understand why my grandmother had some many biographies and histories on her bookshelves (those crinkly plastic dust covers are another vivid sense memory) - in the grand scheme of human history, a childhood like ours is a special thing. Hell, when the world looks bleak, I remind myself that thirty-five was once a ripe old age and I've been lucky enough to have indoor plumbing for all of it. That's gotta count for something, right?
Wrapping with with some miscellaneous faves. Peace and love, y'all!