Turning Hearts, One Photograph at a Time

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Pit stop, ca. 1960 (Why yes, that is a 1956 Studebaker Sky Hawk in tangerine-snow cap)

For the past several years at Christmastime I have given family members a calendar featuring photographs taken over the past year. The reception has been mixed—some enjoy them, others cloak their views in silence and one respondent reported irritation at the perceived “hey, look at me!” nature of the gift—but even if all the recipients were to recycle them with the wrapping paper on Christmas day, I would still continue to put one together. Not out of a misplaced sense of my own artistic greatness but because in reviewing a year’s worth of photographs, forgotten moments are rediscovered, then-unnoticed details take on new significance in light of later developments and a sense of perspective is restored that sometimes even strengthens the ties that bind, which may slacken over the course of everyday life.

Several years ago, for example, during the first six months of parenthood, sleep was rare, tempers flared and frustration mounted. Sometimes, however, when sleep was impossible, I would turn on the computer and browse happier moments of our short sojourn together, which quickly restored to the forefront feelings of love and appreciation that had taken a back seat in the thick of thin things.

This gift of perspective that came from recalling the past reminds me of Frederick, a character in a children’s story by Leo Lionni. Frederick was a field mouse who lived with his family in an old stone wall of an abandoned farm. With winter approaching, the mice worked day and night to store food for the winter. Except Frederick—he spent his time gathering sunshine, colors and words. The other mice looked askance but to their credit did not shun him. When the snow fell, the mice retreated to their hideout, and as long as there was plenty to eat they were a happy family. But supplies ran out and no one felt like chatting any more. Then the other mice remembered Frederick’s supplies and asked him to share. Soon his descriptions of the warm glow of the sun and the bright colors of the summer meadow restored their spirits and their relationships with each other.

This past spring when I returned home for my mother’s funeral I experienced a similar shift in perspective despite otherwise grim circumstances. Most of the preparations were being taken care of already, so when someone mentioned a slide show, I jumped at the chance to make some small contribution to the commemoration of my mother’s life. Over several days and nights, I collected digital photos from relatives and worked my way through more or less organized boxes of slides and photographs, scanning all that depicted my mother. The effort produced about 250 photos, most of them snapshots taken on cheap cameras with no regard to the technical aspects of photography. But they formed a priceless, if incomplete, visual record of my mother’s life, from infancy through her final year, and for the first time they were all in one place and easily accessible.

Having my mother’s life pass in review over those few days helped replace feelings of loss and absence with love and closeness as I caught a glimpse of what it must have been like to grow up as the daughter of an itinerant Nevada farmer during the Great Depression and then raise a large family in the sparsely populated Mojave Desert. Many who attended the funeral expressed their appreciation for this collection of photos, and since no one was familiar with all of the photographs that had been recovered from dusty storage shelves and forgotten folders, we all learned something new about our mother, wife, sister, grandma and aunt as we huddled around the screen.

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Grandma’s quilt

I am grateful for the few photos I have of my daughter together with her grandmother from the few occasions their lives and locations overlapped. One I treasure in particular is a photograph of my mother sitting over her old Singer sewing machine at the kitchen table, unable to see well enough to make the stitches by hand, machine quilting what would the last of the hundreds of quilts she had made in her lifetime, this one for her newest granddaughter who was watching from her mother’s lap. My daughter was far too young at the time to have enduring memories of these moments, but I hope that these photos will help bind her heart to people she will never know well in this life.

Of course, other media have similar potential—journals come to mind, and one of the Book of Mormon’s purposes “is to show unto the remnant of the house of Israel what great things the Lord hath done for their fathers”. Connecting the past to the present is a powerful function of scripture and the records we are urged to create and maintain of our own lives and the lives of our ancestors. Since the gospel is forward-looking as well, however, the value of turning our hearts to our ancestors is also in the cultivation of a frame of reference that helps us to see beyond the irritations and setbacks of everyday life and develop a greater appreciation for those who still surround us.

May such a perspective grease the skids of our at times fraught interactions with those to whom we are (not yet) bound.

Comments

  1. Profound. Very grateful for this reflection.

  2. Amazing.

    I take it your mother is on that photo. Your Viennese daughter will one day be amazed at your Mojave origins. Keep it up.

  3. Thank you both.

  4. I think photographs are very powerful and profound. I had the opportunity to scan several old family photos while my Great-Aunt passed along stories about my relatives. One photo sparked a long-forgotten memory of a toddler who had died. He had been forgotten for almost 100 years. When I relayed the story to my parents, neither were particularly interested. It wasn’t until I created a photobook for them, with the picture of the forgotten little boy, along with a few lines about his life, that his life took on meaning and value. Suddenly, people were asking me what needed to be done to ensure he was sealed to his parents.

    I know that many people disparage the practice of making scrapbooks. I understand it. However, I have looked at my scrapbooking as a way to make connections between generations by trying to share meaningful stories, family traditions, character and personality traits, and recounting memories. For me, it isn’t so much about pretty paper (although that is definitely a bonus) but more about connecting stories to pictures, which then gives those pages meaning to those who read them.

  5. This is beautiful, Peter. Thank you!

  6. with your skills with a camera, why not become a Church Service Missionary as a photographer…..you can contribute as little as eight hours per week and serve for only six months. We need more photographers as CSM’s……

  7. Sweet! and very timely–thanks

  8. What an awesome car. My brother had one in the 60s I think.