Out of Frame and Out of Focus

Out of frame Family photos.jpeg

Why do we hold onto those old family photographs? You know the ones; everyone is in mid-movement, looking in different directions, a flare of light obscures a face while someone else falls off into the shadows. Heads chopped off; mouths open in conversation. Those really bad photographs. I have boxes of them.

My sister Ann went through every one of my mother’s photo albums and pulled out the pictures when we were cleaning out the house. She scanned many of them. We threw away the bulky old albums. All of the photographs went into large baggies to be distributed between the sisters. But the loose photographs still float around from Roanoke to Greenville to Atlanta waiting for who knows what to happen to them.

I sort through them, determined to place them into the hands of nieces and nephews, sons and daughters. I know I should just throw most of them away. They are generally pretty bad photographs. But I just can’t seem to do it.

My mother obviously thought it was funny to take photographs of my daddy when she caught him doing something unusual. Like ‘pressing’ his pants (she actually marked out the word ‘ironing’ on the back of the photograph dated 1976 and changed it to ‘pressing’!) as he looks up sheepishly from his task at the ironing board set up in the den with only his shirt and boxer shorts on. 

But then there are photographs of her bending over to tie her shoe or an extremely unflattering one of her making the bed in a flannel nightgown – so he must have enjoyed the whole ‘candid camera' idea also. 

There he is in the kitchen wearing my sister Kathy’s wig (obviously the 70’s) or out at the pool holding an awkward 5-year-old snaggle-toothed Joey. Is that Josh swinging at the Piñata hung high from the oak tree in the backyard? And look at Ian passing through the living room with a fireman’s helmet on.

Old photographs. What do you do with them? 

I realize I like holding them in my hands. They are tangible reminders of the past. Every Christmas, every Easter, every vacation and birthday and dinner and all sorts of odd moments in between are right there – in my hands. 

Kathy and I deep in conversation in a hotel room in Ashville, still in our bathrobes. Momma outtalking her sisters at my cousin’s house in Chattanooga. Daddy, all pale blue eyes and laughter with newborn Dara in Arizona. It looks just like him and for just a moment he is still alive.

It is too easy to forget. We forget so very easily. And that is why I can’t throw these bad photographs away. These poorly lit, blurred most of the time, unflattering, almost too dark to see images are more real than my absolute best selective memories. 

Black and white, deckle-edged from the '50s. That weird amber color from the 60's with the curved corners. In the '70s someone's camera had a different viewfinder from the lens – so lots of body parts are out of frame. And the Polaroids of the 80’s with all the bad hairdos. (Did we really go outside looking like that?) And all of them have my mother’s cursive handwriting in blue ink on the back. 

They are my reminder. Our lives may have been as messy and out of focus as these old photographs… but our lives were filled and overflowing with each other. These bad photographs are in some ways a better picture of our family than any story I can tell or any memory I can conjure.

I won’t throw them away today. I will sort them. And laugh out loud. I will put them in piles for Joey. For Dara. For Nancy. And the photograph with my Daddy’s best smile, for me.  


Do you have a touchstone that reminds you of where you came from and how that has shaped you? Who are the people who have most influenced your life? Is it good for you to remember? Is it important to share with the next generation?

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