Archive for April, 2010

What’s wrong with this picture?

April 23, 2010

I take a lot of pictures, and upload many of them to Facebook or Picasa. Watching the world through the lens of my camera makes me slow down and see things I might otherwise miss. Posting the images online helps me keep connected to family and friends. And, just like doing the New York Times crossword puzzle or voting Democratic, taking and sharing pictures is a ritual that links me with my past.

My mother’s father developed stunning black and white family portraits in his basement darkroom. My mother favored color slides: summers at the Cape, travels in Europe, babies, birthdays, the family assembled around the Passover table – in almost every roll at least one shot of my father holding aloft the matzoh, inviting all who are hungry to come and eat.

In those days before digital (or even one-hour film developing), you had to wait to see how your pictures came out. In our family, viewing the slides was an event. Someone would set up the screen. Someone would pile books on the table to raise the projector high enough. Someone would crawl under the couch to plug in the cord. Then we would sit back and see what Mommy took, and how her pictures came out.
Those slides were among the items I claimed when we disassembled the house: eight shoe boxes of about 30 rolls each, with 20 or 24 slides to a roll. It took me 10 years to finally buy a slide scanner and start sorting through the pictures and sharing them online with my family.

Not every shot is worth preserving. Some are blurred. Some are poorly exposed or badly composed – a thumb over the lens, the subjects too small to make out. The computer makes it possible to correct the mistakes. But should I? Is it my job to preserve the record of my mother’s often imperfect photography, or to produce the best possible mementos of my family’s history?

At heart, I am a preservationist — just like my mother. She’s the one who refused to throw away a single slide, even those that came back blank. She even kept the slides that melted and warped when the projector jammed and no one thought to turn off the hot lamp.

When I look at these melted slides, I see my notoriously unhandy father fumbling in frustration with the uncooperative projector. I hear my mother issuing her instructions from across the room. I feel the tension in the room – stress I shrank from when I was a kid, but would give anything to experience again. I doubt that it occurred to any of one of us, back then, that the essential story of our family wasn’t just in the special events Mommy recorded with her camera. It was also in the ritual we enacted, however imperfectly, when we gathered to share that story.

The dreams that stuff is made of

April 17, 2010

There’s magic in objects. I don’t mean voodoo dolls and wizard’s wands. I’m talking about the aura that’s emitted by the T-shirt you wore to your first Grateful Dead concert – the sense of the sacred that makes that tattered rag impossible to throw out, even though you know you’ll never wear the damned thing again. I’m talking about the associations that make a relic of every item you save from your childhood home, from the prettiest platter to the lowliest note pad.

That’s how it worked for me, anyway. After my mother died, my siblings and I went through the old house, claiming keepsakes. I brought home a carload, and unpacked the boxes with a flourish, eager to reveal my treasures to my husband and the kids. They were interested enough. But not exactly excited. And why should they have been? The sort of magic of I’m talking about isn’t inherent in the things, themselves. It’s in the memories they prompt in us. The stories we bring to them. And unless we share the associations that make those cups and lamps so dear to us, their special status fades, and recede into the ranks of ordinary cups and lamps.

Clearly, if I wanted to preserve the magic of the objects I’d inherited, I would have to record all the stories and associations that made the stuff sacred. As a writer, I had no other choice.

My idea was to write a series of essays or short stories, one for each item. I began with the big round mirror that used to hang over my father’s mother’s sofa in Elizabeth, New Jersey. I started out with what I remembered about visiting that stuffy apartment when I was little, what I knew about Little Grandma.

But stories also have their own magic. What I did know soon gave way to what I didn’t know, and things that actually took place yielded to more interesting events that could have happened. Memory opened onto memory, facts led to fictions, and complications unfolded as characters created themselves. Ten years later, my story had evolved into the novel that is now in the hands of my agent. Few of the actual facts with which I started remain. What has survived is the emotion that impelled me begin, and to follow the project, through all its unexpected turns, to completion. I have also kept my original title: Little Grandma’s Mirror.