Emotional insurance

Pictures of polliwogs, first baths and birthdays preserve my children in time, but I am always standing just out of the frame.

Published June 21, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Two faces peer at me through 3-by-3-inch square windows. One is of Julian, my son, who is now almost 8; the other is of my daughter Sonja, 4. Their baby faces are positioned against a backdrop of heavy black paper, not yet anchored to the first pages of their photo albums. Over the coming weeks I will move forward, page by page, with an uncertainty of what I might discover about myself as a mother.

Flipping through stacks of pictures, I make two piles: Those to include in the albums and those to return to their envelopes. There are so many to choose from, so many I'll have to leave out of these stories I'm about to tell. Yet the bigger challenge is accepting the difference between the stories in the photos and the stories in my memory. Again and again, I open an envelope and find one truth while remembering the same moments in time as a starkly different truth.

As I sift through the photos of Julian's first years, I realize how random
the moments were when his father, John, and I were inspired to pick up a
camera. Even more unsettling is how random my choices are of what to
include in his album. Will a pattern emerge from the chaos? Will pages of parties, baths and beach trips form a kind of photographic fractal? Is it irrelevant which photos I choose? Maybe all I can hope for is that whichever pictures I paste onto these pages will tell one true story.

Halfway through my making of this album, we leave for Camp Mather, a family camp on the edge of Yosemite. It's a jaw-dropping spot, deeply rooted among redwoods and blue jays and wild columbines. At night we listen to the crackling of dry pine needles as black bears tramp by, the sound of their breathing labored and close. In the morning we gather nets and buckets and head to the lake to catch polliwogs and minnows. I'm taking lots of pictures. But here, when I pick up the camera, I think of the albums. I do what I criticize others for: I let the recording take over the event. This, of course, has made an otherwise spontaneous task a painstaking, although engaging, act of internal and external documentation. Framing each shot, I'm aware of my choices: What I include for the sake
of content or line or color, and what I leave out.

While we were away, John took Julian, his friend Zak and Zak's parents on a day trip. When they returned I asked John if he'd taken any good photos. While Sonja and I caught record numbers of polliwogs, scooped from the shady edges of the lake, I'd imagined Julian and Zak holding hands in mid-air, jumping into the river's water. I'd imagined water rushing over ancient Yosemite stone, spectacular redwoods on either side, El Niño-fed wildflowers in meadows passed. "I brought the camera," he said, and added with an accusing look, "but there wasn't any film left." So I'm left with my imaginings.

If I take a photo of, say, Sonja holding her first-caught polliwog in the palm of her small hand, does the image of that moment in my mind dissolve? In taking the picture, am I free to let it go, knowing I'll soon have a 4-by-6 in my own palm? If so, when I see the 4-by-6 in its gleaming Fuji blues and greens, mat or glossy, it could become the only memory of the scene, the token for all the moments around the second the shutter blinked. When I first glimpse the photo, I may remember that Sonja had a new friend named Laura standing next to her, out of the frame. But 'out of the frame" means that next year, maybe, and in 10 years, for sure, I won't remember Laura. Then again, without the photo, 10 years from now I probably wouldn't remember the polliwog twisting in Sonja's cupped palm.

Something keeps me from savoring the sweetness of this photo. I know I'm making these albums for my children so they can see how abundant their lives already have been, and later, so that they can delight in their evolution, note how that tilted smile or hand-on-hip posture has been with them since forever. But I'm also making these albums for myself. When I turn the pages of the completed albums, I expect to find that the images have melded into a kind of flip-book, and that I will be left with either the elegant package of a mother's job well done or the record of a job subtly but irrevocably botched.

I have fallen short, even done wrong, too many times. How has this happened? I try to piece together the parts -- memories of regretted
moments, harsh words -- in hopes of constructing a whole. There are the many moments of patience lost, the inability to deal with the child who won't drink her glass of milk or put his shoes on. There are the many hours of lost sleep that cause me to say things I wish I hadn't. It all sounds so trivial! Yet those outbursts of impatience accumulate. Add to them the many hours of not having time to read, not being able to enjoy uninterrupted conversations with anyone. As these fleeting moments of dissatisfaction with my role as a mother rise to the surface, they conceal depths of love. I'm sure my children can see the resentment on my face and hear the weariness in my voice. I fear these moments will define their memories of childhood.

Back from Camp Mather, I sit at my desk, licking photo corners and arranging pictures. I hold a picture from 1991. Julian, 1 year old, is pounding the keys of a keyboard with great flourish at my parents' house. This is not something he spent much time doing, nor has he expressed any interest since in learning to play the piano, yet I devote an entire two pages of the album to this activity. I do the same for a bath. I hesitate, wondering whether I should let something like a bath take up so much room. Then it occurs to me that every bath, every meal, every cry, every nap taken together, took up so much room.

I pull envelopes marked "summer, '98" from a box. These recent photos are
perhaps the most surprising because the time between having taken them and seeing them again is short, yet in these photos I see Julian and Sonja as I never have before. When I look at them in person, I don't see how they've grown -- but put a layer of celluloid between us, and I see. I notice how thin Julian is and how long his limbs. Sonja's neck has sprouted; her belly is not so round. In these photos, I see more than Julian and Sonja: I see a second-grader, dreaming of slamming a home run at Candlestick Park; I see a girl whose drawings of cats at long last are recognized by others as cats.

The camera lends another perspective, separate from my own. A couple of men I know, both fathers of young girls, are professional photographers. Often I have seen them shoot without looking through the camera. Mark, wanting a shot of Sonja and his daughter Molly hiding under the bed, crawls on the floor, stretches his camera-holding hand under the bed, looks up at the ceiling and clicks. Jason, wanting a shot of the aftermath of a 1-year-old's birthday party -- babies among wrapping paper, torn and strewn everywhere -- reaches up above it all with his camera and clicks. They trust this other lens, which can reveal a surprise and spontaneity that a parent framing a moment cannot.

I know that if I leave the photo album I just completed in a drawer or closet, one day I will open it and discover stories I'd completely forgotten. I will turn the pages and be surprised by the faces that look up at me. Last week, I found an envelope full of photos I must not have looked at much before tucking them away. There were of me and Julian spending a day in Boston's public garden. In one of the photos, we are strolling down Newbury Street when Julian stops, mesmerized by a sprinkler spraying water over a small patch of grass, a tended corner of urban garden. He stretches his starfish hands across the spray and laughs at the water. This is something I would have never remembered.

It troubles me that I -- family photographer -- am absent from most of the pages. "This is not the truth!" I want to tell them. I realize I want proof of my attendance, the light reflected off my hands cradling a downy head, captured on paper. But I also desire consolation. I can't feel Julian's sleepy infant face burrowing into my chest anymore. I can't feel Sonja rubbing my long hair over her face like a blanket. Soon, I won't be able to drop to one knee open-armed and watch her back up, then run full speed into me. Soon, I won't sing to Julian at bedtime. Years from now my memory may retrieve these moments, or it may not. These albums are a kind of emotional insurance.

In years to come, I imagine going through these albums with Julian and
Sonja on either side of me. From first baths to birthdays, they recognize little until we get to albums of later years. When they're all grown up and showing these photos to a new friend, they will no longer know whether they remember the event or the photo or the story I've told. The three will have become one.

Perhaps more than the stories themselves, what my children will remember
is sitting by my side, listening. There will probably be no photo of that, no 4-by-6 to remind them of how they leaned into my shoulders. Yet these images are only props. What I hope to give them is the knowledge -- the thorough sense, the kind that can't be forgotten, the kind that resides in flesh, bones and blood -- that they were loved. And evidence of my having accomplished that is something I'll probably never find in a photograph.

By Allison Hoover Bartlett

Allison Hoover Bartlett is a freelance writer.

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