Boxes of trains were not the only thing my father’s widow left with us that weekend.
Among the boxes of tracks but no trains, cotton wool and rust there was something far more valuable.
I think I’ve found it
One of the things we had spoken of after his death was our sadness at the lack of any documentation of a time before it all went wrong. When we had an approximation of what we thought to be a functioning family.
In a non-descript wicker basket I found a collection of photos of not only my childhood but that of my family, the family that followed and those before me.
My father’s widow had told me that she was bringing them over but I had no idea how much was there. It was a window into a different time and pictures of a time before any of us had been born.
Postcards from a young man
My father had edited his own life as he had grown older claiming that he closed the book on chapters of our lives. Thankfully despite our fears he had not taken this literally. He had kept photos we thought had been long destroyed or cast away. Not just photos but letters and memorabilia from his many business trips abroad.
It reminded me of the times when he had been away and I would receive odd little missives from faraway places with jokes I was too young to get. What I hadn’t clocked at the time was that each of these cards was in a different handwriting.
You were younger than I am today
Amongst these photos were sepia shots of his time in the merchant navy. His tiny bunk, working area and unknown smiling crew mates I know only from his incredible stories of those days.
There were leaflets and newsletters from his early political career and menus from civic dinners where my mother had doodled corrections to the misspelled French.
It was a nice surprise to find congratulation letters sent to my parents when I was born and when he was just a year younger than I am now.
I’ll take a picture of you
I had been warned that while there may be photos of my family they had all evidence of my mother surgically removed from them. Her presence is clearly felt though. She’s not in the photos so I can only assume that she is taking the photos. Maybe that’s why in most of the pictures he is glaring at the camera. It also explains why there are collections of carefully labelled family holiday photos only made up of a handful of blurred horizons.
I haven’t reached these edited photos yet but I’m angry that he felt the need not only to take a scalpel to his past but ours too.
To remember how good you looked
Inevitably I have reached the age now where I find photos where I am now the only living subject. An awkwardly posed shot taken in a dimly lit Harvester shows me, my father, grandmother and step-mother together for what may have been a birthday meal. It’s a poor reminder of their lives but a rare one worth keeping.
When our smiles were genuine
It’s not all grim. The photos of the days before had little glimpses of my past life, terrible hair, clothes and all. Even in kilts and a jester’s outfit.
There were albums of trips to Portugal, Egypt and Euro Disney and Scottish family history tours. I look awful in most of the shots but those were the days where smiles came easily.
There were some great photos of a family found and lost in a matter of four short years. Potentially this could be a chance to renew old bonds but I’m wary of setting myself up for a fall. For now I will pass on the message that I can pass on these pictures and mementoes to them if they want.
I take a walk down memory lane / no-one sees a thing but they can pretend
There’s mixed feelings looking at some of these old photos now with the (dis)benefit of hindsight. It’s not so much the glaring photos but those where I can see the same defensive stance my son uses in times of stress mirrored in these pictures.
In some there is a look of mute appeal to the photographer as the subjects stretch tight little smiles for the camera as they wait for the shutter to click and end this farce. Many of these photos feel like an intrusion, a personal affront and a violation of privacy..
Freed from our history with nothing but memory
These raw photos offer an opportunity for us all to reclaim our past and work together to put the pieces back in place. They allow a glimpse into a different time and see the changes as the years glided past us. We have what we need not for closure but to find some peace in shared experience.
I have prompts to talk to my own children about my life and a chance to give shape to that misty time before 1991. It’s always easier to remember bad memories so I’m grateful that I now have these smiling snap shots to remind me that it wasn’t always like that.
I have a better understanding of the need to relentlessly document each moment, each event. My own insistence on avoiding photos is a sham. I know how short a life can be and even a long life can leave behind only photos and these may be the only thing to be remembered by once the memories start to fade, flicker and distort.