I time travel quite a bit.
No, seriously, I do.
It’s cheap and you can do it whenever you want, really.
So long as you have photographs..
Sometimes, when I take stock of how many photographs I have, it’s alarming. There are albums and albums which my father put together as I was growing up. The earliest one I have in my closet, a precious thing, is the old fashioned kind with thick gray pages on which you pasted the photos, and Dad did this, small old black and white pics to begin with, of my mother pregnant with me and then my first baby pictures (yes the obligatory bare-ass one…) and then me, growing from a shapeless papoose into a chubby toddler – and then, over a series of other albums, into a long-legged pre-teen and then a rangy adolescent, and then a young woman…
At some point the albums peter out and cross over into something more chaotic, just loose photos, hundreds of them, THOUSANDS of them, from four continents, with occasional efforts being made to sort them and categorize them. Most of the time nobody wrote down anything on the back so actual times and dates and locations are sometimes probably literally known to only one viewer – me – because I was either in the shot (at an identifiable age from which I can then map the rest of the details) or, later on, I was the one behind the camera and remember taking that shot.
By the time my father stopped taking pictures and making albums I had my own camera – but my pictures are different from the ones that came before. I take pictures of landscapes and animals and clouds in the sky and flowers in my garden and butterflies and the ocean and snow. My pictures are of the things I have seen and preserved like a solid little memory square in full Technicolor.
But I don’t have many pictures of people. With my dad’s abdication as photographer and archivist, the long line of the family record really all came to a sputtering end, with a few explosions at a handful of times – a bunch of shots from my graduation(s) from University – a bunch of pictures on which I feature from our sojourn in New Zealand – a couple of shots of me from my South Seas adventure – and then one or two here and there, just as proof of life, I am still here and I am still walking this Earth, but nothing like the sustained record that there was when I was young.
A similar chaos exists from the era that was pre-me.
The older pictures, the black and white shots filled with faces I do not know, my grandparents’ generation. Pictures I cherish because of their age and their testimony – shots of my grandparents as young parents, one particularly affecting one with them weeping over the tiny coffin of their second daughter who did not survive her babyhood – my great-uncle’s high-school graduation photo (he was a handsome young devil) – pictures of my mother as a ten-year-old with her hair in wheat-gold braids. But many of these older pictures are already lost to me because I can no longer identify their subjects. Some of them actually have dates on the back – semi mythical ones, to me, like 1936 and 1945 and 1950, the days before I existed – but the people who might know anything more about those pictures are beginning to vanish.
My father, the great photographer and organizer, died last year. While he was still with us I did a time capsule of sorts for him, combing through that chaos of loose photos for ones in which he appeared, putting them all together in a coherent timeline in a separate album.
Here was my father in a rare early picture when he was seventeen. Here he was in his twenties, and then in his late twenties and a soldier in uniform (they had obligatory military service in those days, and he was in uniform for a while, was in one when he met my mother, and it was horrifying, shocking, for her to be seen being squired around by one of the soldier boys, according to the accepted laws of propriety her culture lived by….), and then in his early thirties holding toddler me in his arms, and then in his forties still young and full of gung-ho optimism about the world flying out into adventure under the flag of the United Nations into Africa with wife and daughter in tow – and him in his fifties, and then his sixties,, and then the later ones, in his seventies, thin and spare and white-haired…
I do not have any of him from the last three months of his life. I did not want to remember him like that (as if I could ever forget, seeing it in real life, holding his skeletal arm in my hand as I supported him as he tried to walk…) But there it is, in front of me, pure time travel, me at my father’s side as he traversed the years of his life, the pictures bringing to life this moment or that one, conversations that started with “Do you remember…?”
It’s a time travel that can go in one direction only, into the past, into the things that were, that had been. Into memory. And photos can take you straight there – take a good look at one, and then close your eyes, and you can live the moment again as though all the years in between never were. You can be young again, any time you choose. You can look at a picture and remember joy, or sadness, or triumph, or awe. Time vanishes into a line, into a dot, and it’s all one continuum, and you and your older self hold hands like ghosts and dance across the story of your life.
It did occur to me, when I was putting together Dad’s albums, that it all ends with me.
I don’t have anyone to come after me. No young eyes are looking at these photos, no young eyes that share the histories that the pictures represent. I discovered already, the hard way, how fast those pictures can become just a pile of paper, in the end – when my father died, my mother culled his own vast mess of uncategorized and un-albumed photos, and she only kept a few, a precious few. Somehow the rest of them – the vast majority of them – lost all meaning when Dad went. A handful were useful as pointers… but photos… are a very personal time machine. Without the spirit to drive them, they become dead letters, a dead story, a vanished history, no longer of interest to anyone except someone who might have cared about the smiling face on the pictures in some capacity, or possibly, if that face had been a public figure of some sort, a dispassionate archivist putting together a collage for a museum exhibit, a cold static display.
This is a time machine for the soul. And it looks back, only back. And when the spirit withers, so does the ability to make sense of the time travel, and meaning, and memory.
I still have photos of my grandparents, dead now these twenty years and more. But for me, their meaning lies in the shreds of personality that still cling to them, the ghostly sound of remembered laughter, or a whispered word in their voice.
Dad’s images are still too young, too fresh, I remember him too well living – some of the more lasting images I recall of him are not recorded by camera but indelibly imprinted in my own mind, and these will be the things that cling to his own photos eventually, like my grandparents’ But for now it’s all still too close, too real. The time machine still sputters, fitfully. His hand is not in mine any more but I can still go back in time with him, he is still close enough for me to do that with.
But it will be a year since he left me, very soon. A YEAR. It’s hard to believe. Another year or three or five and the time machine will come to a final stop, somewhere, and everything will be just dust and ashes and memories.
But not yet. Not yet.
There are still a few journeys into time I can take with my father’s soul as my guide.