The photos we keep

I received an urgent message from my sister on the morning of November 2. I called her immediately and learned that our mother had died from a sudden heart attack.

During the next few nights and after the funeral I stayed alone in my mother’s apartment sorting through the accumulation of materials that are left behind after such times. We had to empty out the apartment, so that meant deciding what to keep, what to give away, and what to toss in the trash.

Going through the family photos I made digital copies with my iPhone, not the best means of digitizing but time & available technology was limited. At least I came away with copies of all the family photos. Of course, I took a fair share of the originals, particularly most of those that included me. The rest were divided among my sister and brother.

However, many, many photos were not in albums but stored in those envelopes that you receive after developing film. Many of these were snapshots taken by my mother, or myself as a young teen, on vacation. They were of nothing special…landscapes, buildings, sunsets and the like. And there were no particular quality to those images. A few older photos captured an aspect of my hometown: a building that no longer stands, a street corner that has changed considerably. Those photos I set aside for preserving. Generally, though, I only kept the photos of people in my family.

Seldom in my life have I wanted photos made of me. Camera shy and before the onset of digital cameras resulted in an explosion of everyday photos of ourselves, there exists only a small number of photographs of myself from the 1980s and 1990s. Many more from the ’70s when I was a boy since my mother often took photos of me. Previously I never understood why people took photos of others or themselves in front of this spot or that place. But now I do. At the end of life those are the photos we cherish. Those are the photos that bring back memories. 

graceland

This is not the best photo of my mother but it raises a vivid memory of an all night drive back from Louisiana to our home in middle Tennessee in 1989. In the middle of the night, around 3am, we passed through Memphis. My mom was driving and I was barely awake. Always a huge Elvis fan she saw a sign for Graceland from the highway and decided to take a detour despite the early morning hour. We had even visited Graceland about seven years earlier…done the whole tour..jungle room, museum, gravesite. But this middle of the night stop was more meaningful.

A few other devoted fans had the same idea, and they mingled in front of the gate. My mom and I got out of the car and wandered along the stone fence while reading the thoughts people had written on the wall surrounding Graceland.

That particular trip to Louisiana was not very good, a painful period in our lives. But there existed a few moments outside Graceland that brought a smile to my mother’s face as I took that photograph of her. And a sweet feeling emerges within me as I view photos of her from my youth. That’s the way I shall always remember her.

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