Some weeks ago, I referred to the google home device that sits on my bedside table and which scrolls through my photo albums as a screensaver. I catch it from the corner of my eye as I lay in bed reading, and sometimes I’ll turn to it and gaze at pics that by now have become very familiar, though never stale.
The album it’s currently showing is mostly of old family pics I scanned over Christmas. Till then, I hadn’t seen them for years, maybe decades. You know how it is with old photos, they’re stuck in a box somewhere inaccessible and out of the way. You’ve forgotten about them, or if you remember it’s just the odd photo that comes to mind, and the pictures in between – the glue that hold those times together – are forgotten. That’s one of the great things about digital photos – they’re always close, and rarely a day goes by when you don’t catch a glimpse of some old memory.
Scanning these photos was one of the best things I’ve done in recent memory, but there were surprises that came with it. I saw things again I’d forgotten about completely. Other moments remain a mystery. There are faces there I’ve not seen for years, and a surprising number are now among the dead. I was initially surprised to see myself in a different way to what I remembered, which caused me to reflect on what identity is. More than anything, perhaps, it brought back to life a time which seems so foreign to current times. I was there, I’ve lived through then and now, but still I find it hard to reconcile.
By and large, the photos are of family and friends. There are the usual occasions recorded – Christmas, birthdays, a christening, many family meals. There are photos of us heading off to the Melbourne cup one year, all smiling faces; and other photos showing us working on renovations or in the garden at Yarck. We’re taking a break, leaning on a shovel, a beer in hand and another grin. And there are scenes from hunting trips and skiing and holidays in general and the date range covers from when I was about seven years old until I was a little past thirty.
Over time, I’ve grown used to the photos scrolling by and enjoy the moment of nostalgia I often feel. It’s not always nostalgia I feel, though. Sometimes, it’s wonder. I’ll turn and watch as if unsure it’s true and wanting to return to that moment to understand. Over time my gaze has shifted from the oddity of seeing myself in a different way, to look upon my wider family, and more than anyone, my mum and her second husband, my stepfather.
It’s a measure of my affection for them that among the photos I chose to scan are those with little to do with me. I wasn’t there, I don’t even know how I came to possess the pictures. But maybe it is that I wanted to capture a memory, or a perspective, of my mother particularly. There are some from a time before she met Fred. She’s out, socialising, with friends and doing things. She’s younger in those pics, and I try to remember that because my lasting memory of her is from the end. I look at her in the photos, at her smile and the way she looks in the camera. I knew her then, I think, which is an absurd thought, but somehow natural, too. I wonder what conversations we had then.
Then there are the pics of her with Fred, both of them smiling and happy. This was a golden age, for all of us – if only we knew it. There’s one photo, they’re overseas somewhere I think, and in my mind, I imagine it’s Paris. They were often travelling. They’re sitting at a restaurant table smiling up at the camera and it’s a lovely photo. Then I realise the sports jacket that Fred is wearing – a black and white houndstooth – I now have. I wear it sometimes. I have it because it’s been a long time since he’s needed it. There’s a sour tang that goes with the sweetness of the memory. And that’s how it is, sweet and sour.
I am of a particular type that reflects deeply on such things. I try and find understanding as if it was a thing. What I’m really searching for is a kind of balance. What is there to understand, after all, but that all is ephemeral? People come, people go, the river of life continues. The balance you seek is acceptance of that, the sweetness of memory in one scale, the sourness of loss in the other. And, being human beings, it’s only rare that they’re in true balance.
Today is my mum’s birthday. Had she still been alive she’d have turned 79 today. Both she and Fred were sprightly, active types, but both went before their allotted span. If it were not for cancer you’d expect that mum would still be around, and Fred perhaps as well. But, cancer.
Perhaps what I seek to understand is how this becomes that – how happy photos become sad memories; how a full life becomes abrupt death. You know the answer – there are no guarantees, and its ever been this way. There is no understanding to be had unless you seek to understand life itself. And if there is an understanding of that to be had, then it’s not in a single answer but in multitudes of possibility. So, it’s balance and acceptance that you seek, the memory of happy times, and the wistful knowledge that nothing is forever.
And in the meantime, I just miss my mum.