I am the keeper of the photos. I had the chutzpah at age 13 to declare that when my maternal grandparents died, I would receive their family photographs. Eight prized albums. Seven baggies of loose black and whites. All crammed with random snapshots of holidays in Europe, taken with people whose names I will likely never know, in places I will never walk with my own two feet. There’s one baggie containing high school wallet-sized portraits of my mother’s friends and acquaintances from Redford High School. On the backsides are their cheeky inside jokes scrolled in ink, sometimes smeared.
I had requested, with such certainty, that I be the keeper because I had spent the most time studying these analogs of our ancestry. I wanted to be left with the gigantic task of carrying them with me into the future, displaying their spines in rainbow order on my bookshelf from apartment to apartment. It was a record of life before me, documented in tiny frames of what had been, tucked behind yellowing cellophane sheets cracking with age.
The Early Ritual
My extensive familiarity with these photos is bound to a ritual, one that occurred at the start of every one of my childhood visits to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. This rite brought an eventual calm after a whirlwind arrival. It grounded me, providing me with an opportunity to silence my mind, leaving room for the quiet contemplation of my family history.
When we would arrive to Grandad and Grandma Norah’s house after a seven-hour drive, there were several items that immediately needed to be marked off my to-do list.
The first was to hug my family members. This included taking in the big whiffs of their scent and being squeezed for whatever duration they could hold me before I wiggled away to my next to do item. Grandad was musky like two-day-old Old Spice, fresh-smoked fish, and a faint purse of Kessler’s on his breath. Grandma Norah smelled like a combination of Coty Airspun Loose Powder and Denorex shampoo.
Second, I had to find the candy dish! It usually lived on the wood furnace box that overcrowded the living room. It was always the perfect “old lady assortment”: Werther’s Originals, fruit-flavored Tootsie Rolls, those crinkly, plastic-wrapped strawberry hard candies
Third, I’d check to make sure there was a canister of Tang in the cabinet sitting next to Grandad’s heavy-leaded highball glasses. Fourth, I’d use the bathroom. I usually hadn’t peed since we crossed over the Mackinac Bridge, and even for a kid my bladder seemed to be impossibly small. Fifth, check the freezer to account for a half gallon of vanilla ice cream, and the fridge to make sure a jar of maraschino cherries was in the door and well within their “use by” date.
Sixth, and finally, I would pull out the first family photo album, unwrapping a piece of candy as I dove in. While Mom and Grandad finished unloading our overpacked car, I’d find myself in the perfect spot in front of the living room bookshelf, folding my legs into a pretzel on the black and rust-colored shag carpet, slowly walking my fingers through old family photographs.
Not many six-year-olds would revel in the index of barnyard coops and blurry livestock on their Great Aunt Anne’s farm in Pennsylvania. But I did, because I wanted to see myself there. I painted myself into the black and white stills. I imagined the sounds, and smell, of Mom ironing her hair pin straight for her high school senior portrait. I could feel the strained smile of my cousin, Jennifer, balancing one-legged in a black leotard on the hood of her family’s car. I touched what I could of these memories, imprinting them onto myself. I wanted to leave myself in them, too: a place to go backward and also forward. These albums became my version of familial braille.
Restorying: Using Photography to Fuse Old and New Memories
I was digging through stacks of envelopes from Arbor Drugs. These lived inside Rubbermaid containers in the storage unit I had rented when my ex-husband and I separated. By this point, it had been seven years of renting and storing hastily-gathered belongings from that marital apartment. There were just so many envelopes to shuffle through, and I couldn’t find what I was looking for.
My mom had grandiose intentions of putting all of these loose photographs into albums. However, it was a sort of miracle in and of itself that she had the film developed at all. When I cleared my childhood home, there were dozens of rolls of undeveloped film that I had to dump. The canisters had no dates or sharpie-written scribbles indicating what was on them, and I knew years of storage in the attic bungalow had exposed them to extreme temperatures. At the time, I had no money to risk the cost of developing them. Now those film canisters are buried layers deep in some Michigan landfill.
In that storage unit, I was looking for photographs from a very specific childhood trip to Crater Lake, Oregon, in the early 1990s, one of my first trips with Mom fresh after the divorce. It was a time when she had seriously considered selling everything and starting over on the West Coast. For one reason or another, that move never came to fruition. Maybe it was too overwhelming an idea to truly start over. Moving 2500 miles away would guarantee that she and my father would never get back together—maybe she didn’t want to rip anything else away from me. In retrospect, the most likely reason was not wanting to leave my grandparents. Mom clung desperately to them for strength. Grandad, especially, was her support beam.
As I continued looking, my frustration grew with the disorganized stacks; I wanted to be able to land on an album spine and thumb through the pictures with ease and little exertion. But I was determined. It was late July 2018, and I was about to embark on a very important trip to honor my mom’s recent passing. I needed this picture to guide my way.
On this upcoming journey, my now-husband Matt and I were going to sort through Mom’s belongings, collect Chicago, her cat, and meet up with her sister and my cousins. We also planned to scatter her ashes along the wind, a plan that she and I had mapped out together during tearful conversations in the hospital, only a few months earlier.
On May 9, 2018, I was told by a team of doctors that I needed to be with my mom in Oregon, to be her voice as she neared the end. Sixteen hours later, Matt and I walked into Room 209 to find Mom sitting up in bed, eating scrambled eggs with cheese melted on them.
As the days wore on in the hospital, though, I could sense her lucidity dissolving. She was officially in organ failure, and had agreed to hospice. I pressed myself closely to her, sitting in a chair alongside the hospital bed, holding her soft, discolored hands in mine as we talked and planned. There was nothing to sort out in probate, no will and last testament. There were just things, like the family photographs, but these were already in my possession.
Within that frame of memory I can recall asking her what to do with her remains. She confirmed several favorite places where she wanted her ashes to be spread, but also left it open to my choosing. She gave me loving permission to scatter her ashes “…anywhere else I wanted to find her.”
Months later in that storage unit, I began bargaining with myself. If I could find this specific snapshot of a happy childhood memory, then it would serve as a sign that I should honor her in some way at Crater Lake. This desire was bolstered by a long-held daydream she and I had about visiting the national park together “on Matt and I’s next trip out.” It promised the chance to create a new memory there, this time with the three of us. Despite years of health issues that would make a trek of that magnitude a real challenge, we fantasized anyway, hoping for a miracle.
I even blew that exact wish across my birthday candles in February earlier that year.
I don’t recall how many envelopes I thumbed through with Matt’s help before I found it, but I did.
It was a snapshot of my mom posed along the rock wall that encircles the rim of Crater Lake. She was using her left arm to steady herself against the scenic backdrop. Her right arm draped gently across her lap, hand crossing to rest on her left knee. The painted color of her long, natural fingernails was blown-out by the bright sunshine captured on 35mm film.
She was wearing a short-sleeved chambray button-down with polka dots paired with navy blue high-waisted shorts and oversized white sunglasses. A chestnut brown mop of coiffed hair sat atop her head with her signature blooming bangs. Even today, I can close my eyes and this image of her is blazed into my memory. When I wish that I could sense her presence, I think about the polka dots on her shirt and begin to count them.
I was determined to recreate the image. After spending family time near Mt. Shasta (“Mom’s mountain”), Matt and I drove the three hours from McCloud, California, to Crater Lake National Park. At this point in our journey we had spent five days with my maternal relatives, and each day the sky was varying degrees of burning apocalypse. August was peak wildfire season.
When we arrived, we found the closest parking space, climbing out of the rental car and stretching. Ambling toward the edge of the rim, we watched chipmunks dance and jump along the same rock-clad wall that was in the snapshot that I was holding. We hadn’t walked 300 feet when I noticed a familiar triangular rock. The exact rock, with a swollen crack in its center, was right there in the photograph. I walked up to the rock and placed my fingertips on it, not sure what I was expecting to feel. A mother and daughter situated themselves next to us, posing for the camera in matching straw sun hats.
The sky was a dulling blue, but the wind had picked up and Wizard Island was cloaked in a thinning veil of receding smoke. Dressed like Mom (one part honor and one part dramatization) the act itself was a kind of performance piece. I asked Matt to help me pose to match Mom’s. I asked him to take the portraits. There I was, in my polka-dotted chambray Old Navy shirtdress with black capri cotton leggings jutting out from underneath, a few graying hairs fluttering away from my face. Matt set his wide-legged stance, holding my iPhone just so, his image captured neatly inside the reflection of my own white sunnies. And for a moment, I held an unfamiliar quiet in my mind. This was not the same wish granted from my birthday candles, but it was something. It felt as if Mom had directly led me there.
What to do with what remains? (Returning to Michigan)
It was summertime, and we were living in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic when I decided it was time to take the remainder of Mom’s ashes to the Upper Peninsula: a proverbial last stop on the tour of her most favorite places. Places that we could visit anytime and find her.
I had hoped to invite my mom’s Michigan friends and family to join in her final scattering. But as the anniversary of her death came and went and COVID restrictions remained in place, I knew that keeping “her” in our apartment, in a plastic box labeled with her name just felt wrong. It was actually a familiar feeling, remembering that Mom kept Grandad’s ashes inside their shipping box atop our broken aquarium for several months before we finally put him to rest in his chosen places. How could I continue moving forward with my grief when the remainder of her physical self was sitting on a crowded shelf in our closet?
Fueled by this need for closure, Matt and I returned my mom to the same land where our family had scattered my Grandad’s ashes some 23 years earlier. The sensations surrounding us that afternoon have etched themselves deep into my memory: The babbling of traveling water. Stale smelling leaves rustling in the trees. The whooshing of the waves of Lake Superior not too far in the distance. The damp air around us turned colder as the rain heavied. We sent her ashes into the autumn breeze on what would have been her 68th birthday.
While there, I showed Matt the place where I had spent much of my childhood. These were the same places that had been captured on dulling photographic paper tucked safely inside the photo albums in our living room. In them were reflections of some of my most prized core memories: sandbars in the tannin waters of Lake Superior; the color changes every autumn, with Mom pointing out the fiery red maple trees from her driver’s seat; every Thanksgiving (without forecasted snow), before and after my parents’ separation and divorce.
My grandparents’ house was still standing during this visit, even though my favorite stone-slab stoop was gone. Its pale-yellow siding was now muddled by mildew. The apple tree next to the attached garage was dropping ripe fruit. We walked the perimeter of the earth where Grandad’s vegetable garden used to grow. I recalled that his wooden outhouse was once situated near there too, with its sliver moon cut-out window, notably reminding my mom of summer’s spend on her aunt’s farm in Pennsylvania. It was the same farm with chicken coops and blurred livestock that remained alive in my memory, thanks to the family photographs in my posession.
On this journey, I also brought snapshots to recreate, this time from the sacred family albums. After years of studying each photograph, how would the present moment change what those people and places meant to me? Would familiar places take on new meaning? How could I merge my present self with the memories locked inside these photos?
I had no idea what it would actually look like to recreate these nostalgic images while processing my grief until I was actually standing in Grandad’s old driveway.
Merging the past and the present
In constructing these “then and now” photographic moments, I was taking my cue from other artists like Beth Yarnell Edwards (Time) and Christine McConnell (Bustle). These recreation processes brought me an immeasurable sense of connection to Mom, and to other places and people in my history. Perhaps even more valuable, my curiosity and need to process my own grief had plugged me back into a long-loved creative outlet: photography.
The first two years after my mom’s death I reimagined just a few of my most favorite photographs of her. I continue to loosely plot out other photo recreations in my mind while scouring thrift store racks and summer yard sales for the perfect fashions to replicate her attire. I’ve found that clothing serves as the most immediate visual link back to the past and can lend itself as a jumping off point for my next tableaux.
During this creative process, I have also begun to acknowledge the visual similarities in our appearance, as opposed to the differences I saw when she was alive. Wanting nothing of her journey through illness and depression for myself, I had always claimed to look more like my father as some act of cosmic defiance; but the truth was our visual identities are undeniably intertwined.
What happens when the person we are wishing to recreate a memory with is no longer alive? For me, this is where a new ritual began, discovering a new way of mourning this painful loss. It began with that photo of Mom at Crater Lake. I wanted to hold it in my hands there, because I couldn’t hold hers.
In each of these ritualized experiences, and literally at my fingertips, I was holding grief and loss equally with love and remembrance. I was folding myself in, just inside the frame, into a place where I could be reunited with someone who could no longer join me in their physical form. A place manifested in wonder and connection which can grow in the creation of some new paradigm. A photo inside and along a memory. Together again, and new.
Photography is not unlike memoir. We are capturing one version of a moment. What I am constantly learning while I process my experiences with death and loss is how to find presence inside this grief space. There is no useful wishing for the impossible return of the dead. But we can reach back into the past to find those people in our present moment.
We can slow dance with impermanence, acknowledging that there is no real closure to grief. But within the spaces that existed in a snapshot, we have a new choice to reenter the frame. Doing so is like adding another chapter to the story. There is always more to tell, a new perspective, a thread that has come away from a seam, but doesn’t need mending. I invite you to find yourself there.
With loving memory of Chicago (aka Chicky): January 18, 2006 – October 29, 2022Become a Patron!