I’ve been looking at a lot of old pictures lately. Pictures of my husband’s family, both when he was growing up and more recent ones, as we unearth snapshots that my motherand father-in-law had squirreled away in boxes and drawers. Pictures of Caroline as she prepares to graduate from eighth grade and head to high school.
There’s Tony and his dad, arms around each other’s shoulders, in the kitchen doorway. It’s not very old, but Tony doesn’t remember when it was taken. There’s Tony’s dad holding Teresa last fall in the family lounge at the assisted living facility where his mom lives — her grandmother’s house, Teresa says. There’s Caroline at 5 years old on a trip to Baltimore, at Camden Yards. There she and I are, each leaning on an elbow in an unintentional mirror image. There’s Frank playing hockey, and, much younger, playing with cars on the dining room table.
One of Teresa’s favorite books to look at these days is a photo album that Frank put together when he was about 5, of photos he and Tony took on a train trip to Milwaukee with Tony’s mom and dad. Some of the pictures are Frank’s, some are Tony’s that he took of Frank. Teresa turns the pages and exclaims, “Frank! Papa! Gaga!” — the last being her grandmother — and, “Train!”
By the time she’s 5, she’ll probably be convinced she was on that train with them.
That’s the magic of photographs, of course. They capture a moment in time and help us go back in our minds. Even if we weren’t there when the pictures were taken, we feel like we can understand what was happening, especially when we know the people in the pictures.
When we were around to see the pictures taken — or were the ones taking the pictures ourselves — those family snapshots are the closest thing we have to a time machine.
This is what Caroline looked like when she played on the Little Tikes slide in the backyard; look at her now, taller than her mother. But she still has that same intensity in her gaze.
That was what Frank looked like the day he started kindergarten, in overall shorts and a Tshirt. Now you can’t get him out of warmup pants or gym shorts. He still has that friendly, open demeanor that seems to invite people to talk with him.
That was Papa a few months before he died, when he was feeling pretty good and enjoying his grandchildren still, even though he couldn’t get on the floor to play the way he used to.
Teresa’s doctor told me she would probably forget him pretty quickly; she had turned 2 two weeks before he died. But the way she looks at his pictures, I don’t think so. She asks about him, and I tell her Papa is loving her all the way from heaven, and he always will. I hope his picture can always spark the memory of his love.
Just like looking at old pictures can take me back to when Caroline was a baby or Frank was a toddler in the blink of an eye.
Martin is assistant editor of the Catholic New World. Contact her at email@example.com.