I believe in photographs – that with the snap of a shutter a moment can be immortalized in the emulsion of a filmstrip. The gap-toothed grin of your third grade school portrait becomes something to show a friend who’s proven he can laugh you through the most awkward moments in life and still love you later. An image of you and your stepsisters as gawky pre-teens standing in front of Old Faithful on your family’s last trip together helps you remember that you haven’t always been estranged from them. Without a physical representation to remind you though, the moments fade into other memories that for whatever reason stay with you.
My stepfather Charley thought of cameras as a way to document the passage of time. He carried his camera everywhere and photographed my mother, stepsisters, and I in some of our proudest moments, such as the final evening as the lead role in a play, and some moments just as easily forgotten, like shoveling mounds of snow from the front stoop. We lived a simple Idaho life as two families welded together through remarriage, and although our parents tried to instill equality between us girls, they could not deny the inherent urge to love their own more. As my stepsisters and I grew older, they came around less and less, and my mother and I tried not to feel abandoned as Charley chased after his daughters.
The day after Charley died, my mother came home from driving his fragile body the silent two hours to the nearest city crematorium to find all the photographs of life with her companion for twenty-six years gone. My stepsisters had picked through the great stacks of albums my mother had so carefully labeled and tucked into the shelves of the upstairs bookcase and they took every picture containing Charley. Part of me understands the need to hold this evidence closely and not let go, but I miss looking at those albums and being flooded with the familiarity of the past. Some lonely images of my mother and I still remained, next to empty spaces with labels that said things like, “Charley at the beach” and “The family at Warm Lake.” I remember these moments, but the passing of time begs for proof that life was once a happy family in a boat on a lake.
Recently I found a shoebox filed with pictures I had taken as a little girl. Amongst the blurry photos of my bedroom and clothes hanging on the line outside was a picture of Charley. It is a close-up, showing just his face and the blue sky behind him. It is obvious he is looking down at the little girl with the camera. He is chewing on a blade of sweet grass, as he often did when he was trying not to smoke, and his short brown hair is messy from a long day outside. He is smiling – I can make out the creases around his eyes from behind his tinted lenses as he squints into the sun. I snap the shutter to make the moment permanent, and when it opens the memory is indelibly burned into that small strip of plastic, yet the moment passes quicker than I can blink at the sun in my eyes.
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