Monday, June 23, 2014

Worthless treasure

For years, for decades, we carried the box of photographs from old home to new, adding to it now and then but for the most part simply finding space for it wherever we landed. The box contained—or so I thought—a photographic record of our life together, or at least the portions when I shot negative film rather than slides. And now, on the cusp of our 40th anniversary, our daughter-in-law had requested a handful of images to create a collage for a party she’d planned, so Lori retrieved the box from the basement. 

“It shouldn’t be too hard to find a few good ones,” my wife said brightly while I brewed a cup of plantain tea. I’d been coughing and choking and decided to try an old Native American remedy using weeds pulled from our yard.

Before the infusion process was completed, though, Lori glanced at me with an odd look on her face.

“These are really awful,” she said.

She rummaged deeper into the bowels of the box, digging out packets of prints in their tidy sleeves and riffling through them as if shuffling a deck of cards before discarding them one by one into an ever-enlarging pile. From what I could see there were images from Quintana Roo and Costa Rica, Aransas Bay and South Carolina, and West Texas where we had tracked down my grandparents’ farm through a bewildering maze of abandoned oil field roads.

“I mean it, these are horrible,” she said. “I don’t remember them being this bad.”

What I remembered was disappointment, but that summed up almost everything from graduation to Kansas. For a while I’d blamed the execrable quality on the developing labs before finally admitting that I wasn’t very good at photography. It was partly the equipment’s fault and partly my own lack of experience and determination, but even my recollection, based as it was on a lifetime of disappointing results, could barely reconcile itself with what we found within that box.

They were shockingly bad, and many were taken with a little Canon Elph. At the time it was supposed to be the latest and greatest camera system, the APS multi-format system developed by Eastman Kodak, but it was actually an evolutionary tangent that withered on the vine. It was evident that the camera had been incapable of proper focus or exposure, but why hadn’t I noticed it before? Money, probably, and the realization that we couldn’t afford anything else.

The photos of Costa Rica and Mexico were particular disappointing, because my memories are so vivid that we could have been there yesterday. I remember stumbling from the hot, humid confines of the Yucatan scrub to watch a collared forest falcon sail across the mottled face of the Great Pyramid at Cobá, and the beach at Tulum, glistening white sands laved with turquoise breakers and a flotilla of magnificent frigatebirds stationary above the temples. How could that compare to those horrible grainy images with the blown-out skies and muddy shadows? They can’t, and they never could. I was too busy or blind to see them for what they were, and somehow mistook them for heirlooms or treasured mementos, not realizing for 20 years or more that they were worthless even by the day’s technology, that they held nothing recognizable to what we experienced. 

Photos of family gatherings, of Lori’s grandfather’s funeral, of early visits to Kansas, the salt flats of Oklahoma and the swamplands of Aransas Bay were no better. Each packet was worse than the last, and if that weren’t painful enough, most were printed in doubles. 

“It’s bad enough that we have to look at them once,” Lori said, “but twice? We need to weed them out.”

“We need to throw them out.”

“But these are our memories,” she said, exasperated.

“No, they’re bad snapshots. They don’t tell the story.”

“Really bad snapshots,” she corrected. “I can’t believe you were that bad back then.”

“Cheap equipment.”


I picked a photo from the pile and showed her. “I liked your hair this way,” I said.

“And you look so buff in this shot,” she said.

“Remember the alligator in the dark when we were looking for that king rail?”

“I was positive we were going to die,” she said.

I selected another, a snowscape. “That was the Christmas blizzard, wasn’t it?”

“Looks like it. The kids made snow angels while you tried finding the car. Here’s your grandparents and Uncle Dick.”

The faces of the dead stared back at me. My grandmother’s unceasing smile, thoughts of her scrumptious poundcake, my grandfather’s homemade salsa that burned his bald head to a glowing cinder, my uncle’s gentle grin.

“We can’t throw them out,” I said quietly.

“No, we can’t,” she said.

“Maybe just the doubles.”


“But not today,” I said, and put the lid on the box.

“What will we give Michelle?”

“Ourselves,” I said. “We’ll tell our stories.”

“But not of how we met,” she said with a sly smile.

I sighed theatrically. “Okay,” I said, “not that one.”


Carol said...

Tom-- This piece literally moved me to tears. Don't throw out your photos. Each one will get more valuable (at least to YOU) the older it gets, no matter what the quality. My family lost most of our photos in the '66 Topeka tornado. Stuff is stuff. What I still miss are the matter WHAT the quality might have been.

Tom Parker said...

Carol -- Don't worry, our worthless treasures are now safely stored for another day. And I agree about photos, though mine are mostly digital now. I have redundant redundant backups of everything including two full sets off-site. Stuff is stuff, but photos are our stories and our memories.

shoreacres said...

But isn't the awkwardness, the out-of-focus, the blurry and the poorly framed part of the story, too? Learning anything - how to shoot photos, how to be married, how to live - is a process, and if we didn't have a record of those first awkward attempts, how would we know how far we've come?

Tom Parker said...

Absolutely, Linda! As a barometer of progress and experience, the pictures are perfect. Still, I was shocked at how bad I was, or, as we might prefer to think about it, how far I've come. Seriously, they made my eyes bleed...