“Do you want to work on the photographs?” my mother would say when I visited. In the last decade of her life, we sorted through the loose photographs of our extended family and arranged them in albums. There were photographs that my mother had accumulated over many years as well as those that came from her sister Hazel and a few from her mother. The more recent photographs were often still in the packages received from the printer. We began by sorting the photographs into the various families of my aunts and uncles, and those of older generations were simply gathered in my mother and father’s lineages. Each lineage went into its own envelope for storage in a large cardboard box.
We worked over the years at the kitchen table in mother’s house and later at a smaller table in the apartment she had in a senior citizens’ complex. We would spread the photographs of a family over the table, then begin to arrange them chronologically, gauging the age of individuals by changes in their faces and by the appearance of children and grandchildren. I would ask mother who was in a photograph and what year it might have been taken. She would say something like, “well that was taken in Moulton”—or some other small town in southern Iowa or northern Missouri—“and it must be . . .” I would check her identifications and guesses at dates against other photographs, then write the year and names of people on the page of the album and mother would put adhesive ‘art corners’ on the photograph, lick the corners, and adhere the photograph to the album page.
My mother was not a storyteller but seeing faces of family from decades past provoked her thoughts of relationship and sometimes a vignette. She would pick-up photographs here and there and laugh. “What?” I would say, and she would recall an event or something she had been told. Later at night, after we had finished and replaced the envelopes of families in the cardboard box, I would try to recall what she had told me. I would write a few notes from her memories.
My mother enjoyed looking through the photograph albums. When she thought about a relative, she would pull the albums from the closet where they were stored to find a photograph of the person. I think of her rubbing the fingers of her left hand over those photographs and, nearer the end of her life, when her vision had weakened badly, she used a rectangular magnifier that had a handle like a hairbrush to search for the memories she sought in the pictures.
She wanted the photograph albums one morning. Relatives from Ohio were coming later to visit, and she wanted to show them a photograph. My sister, J___, had stopped-by mother’s apartment, which she often did in the mornings and mother, who could then not quite reach the stack of photograph albums from her wheelchair, asked J___ for help. Mother wheeled her chair around to the closet where the albums were stored. My sister took one and then another album from the shelf for mother to check. They weren’t finding the photograph she wanted. Mother leaned forward, reaching toward the album she thought was right, but sat back heavily in her wheelchair. “Dizzy,” she said, “I’m going to faint.” Mother’s head lolled, and my sister reached to hold it. With her other hand, J___ reached for mother’s wrist, where she felt her pulse, which was still alive. J___ reached then for the telephone to push the button that mother had marked for emergencies.
That image of my mother and sister lies like a photograph in my memory, although I was in London. It was evening in London, and I was planning to go to a party and had a ticket to leave for Paris the next morning. Still, the memory of my mother’s chin sinking against my sister’s hand lies photographically—sharply shadowed by a point-and-shoot flash—on a page of sorts in which it is juxtaposed against Paris. I wonder what will happen to this memory over time and whether the juxtaposition of my mother’s fallen head and Paris will get mixed around in some absurd way. Of course, I have neither a memory nor a photograph of that day in my mother’s apartment—I have the story. I wrote it after my sister and I talked on the phone, and, when I was back in my mother’s apartment a few days later, it was again the first thing that J___ told me.
The photographs of albums are episodic, much like stories; but the photograph albums are incomplete narratives. I look for their dramatic arc, but it’s unclear. There is more randomness to a photograph album than there is in stories, and albums are more fragmentary. Like memories, I think. Our memories are drawn, kin-like, to these aspects of photograph albums. I wonder about the relationship between memory and photographs, especially whether our memories bond to photographs, whether time turns photographs to memories in some alchemy story and age.
I have been looking at the photograph albums that my mother and I made, and, without new photographs, I have been sorting through memories. It’s hop scotch. My memories bound one leg, then two, across the photographs, landing often between the pictures. Those interstices intrigue me. I am tempted to write between the pictures—with a fine-pointed roller ball, I want to bridge the fragments, making stories, false photographs made of words.
This is a false photograph, but a real memory: it’s April 2000, and I have returned to Iowa to visit my mother, who has just been diagnosed with an untreatable cancer. She will live nine months, perhaps a year, according to her physician. At the end of my visit, we are in the Cedar Rapids airport. We say our goodbyes. My brother-in-law pushes my mother’s wheelchair into the elevator. They turn to face me. My mother gives me half a wave with her curled palm. “I love you,” she says. I am a forty-something man with graying hair, and I am crying. “She’ll be here when you get back,” my sister says. In the bright light of the elevator, my sister and her husband stand beside my mother in her wheelchair. My mother’s shoulders slump slightly. The elevator’s doors slide shut. Like a camera’s shutter.
In the last photograph album, which my mother assembled while I was away, she included photographs of herself. They were taken with an inexpensive Polaroid camera that produced only fuzzy images in cool colors. She sits in the photographs at the table in her apartment, where she has spread the afghans that she has recently crocheted. She had spent much of her last two decades crocheting afghans, at which she had great skill, making them tight and thick and winning regularly prizes for them at local crafts shows. She asked to be buried with her crochet needles. She asked also to have her arms covered by a small afghan that she had made. “I don’t want to be cold,” mother said, “I want something on my arms.”