Preserve those precious family photos
My mother Marjorie is a dark horse. The introverted chalk to Dad’s chatty cheese, Mum has always assumed an agreeably acquiescent position in our family. As a mother, grandmother and expert conflict resolution negotiator – I’ve never known her to take sides, not even mine – she simply goes with the flow.
But back in her day, she had spunk, style and legs like a supermodel. Before she married Dad and had children, she wore the shortest shorts I’ve seen since my teenage niece, Jaime, turned up to a recent family celebration wearing frayed-at-the-crutch denim cut-offs. When my sister gently suggested her daughter’s attire wasn’t appropriate for her grandparents’ 49th wedding anniversary dinner, Jaime replied with a withering eye roll: “It’s not Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Mum. It’s Bazza’s Steakhouse in Pukekohe!”
I should have taken a photo, for that sassy teenager would never believe, were it not for photographic evidence, that I had legs like hers, once, and so did her grandma.
Mum rocked the 1960s. When she was 19, she boarded the train from Frankton to Wellington with her best friend Fay, caught the New Year’s Eve party ferry to Christchurch and embarked on a bus tour of the South Island, posing in their shift dresses and sandals in front of museums and monuments from Temuka to Timaru.
They recorded it all for posterity on Grandad Albert’s vintage Leica and Mum stuck all her photos into a ringbound formal photo album. Later, with the steady hand of a draughting cadet at the Department of Lands and Survey, she wrote tidy captions in white ink underneath each picture.
That’s how I know that Mum and Fay had as many different cardigans as there are days of the week; that they clearly packed their hairnets and rollers; and that Mum can’t spell cathedral.
When I was a child, our family’s “official” photograph albums lived in the sideboard and were only taken out on special occasions, usually when a family get-together had run late into the night and too much sherry had been consumed, paving the way for memories to leak out into our lounge.
There were only three volumes – my sister and I didn’t arrive until Volume
III, and at least half those photographs were later edited out in fits of teenage shame. Note to parents: you might think it’s cute to take pictures of your children in the buff in the bath with all their cousins, or squirting the garden hose at each other, au naturel, or with bad bowl cuts and polonecked skivvies under matching home-sewn frocks, but your children are likely to shred them years later.
Funnily enough, by adulthood those are the photos we prize: the unintentionally hilarious ones, like my in-laws posing outside the Auckland Registry Office next to a “Best for Less” billboard, or Dad giving his wedding speech with empty DB bottles for table decorations, or my late grandfather in his knitted Tam o’ Shanter, which I swear was actually one of Grandma’s tea cosies.
My favourite old photo of myself is a pre-teen portrait taken on the lookout at Huka Falls. I have a
pink Alice band in my white-blonde hair, which is the same snowy shade my youngest son, Lachie, now sports, and a coy smile like a pre-Charles Princess Diana. I’ve never looked quite so innocent again.
Would that impromptu portrait have made the grade as a modern selfie? Unlikely. I’d probably have declared it unflattering, or tried to fiddle about with different Instagram filters, or simply hit the delete button.
It wasn’t that long ago that developing photographs was an expensive luxury. One roll of film – 24 exposures, or 36 if your parents had been feeling flush – might last a whole year before that tiny time capsule was taken into the local chemist’s for processing. Getting that packet of photos back, still smelling of darkroom chemicals, was as exciting as the night before Christmas, for there were faces and places, and the occasional dearly departed pet, you’d already forgotten about.
Digital photos, on the other hand, are a dime a decillion. We take them in their thousands, yet rarely, if ever, print them out... or back them up.
I learned this lesson the hard way. Killing time stuck in a motorway traffic snarl-up, I was scrolling through the photos on my phone when I hit the wrong button and accidentally deleted the folder containing the first three years of Lachie’s life. Those photos weren’t saved anywhere else.
When I fell pregnant with my first child, Lucas, the very first thing I did – after peeing on the stick for confirmation – was rush off to the specialist stationery store kikki.K to buy a fancy baby album. (Before I had kids, I foolishly thought I’d have plenty of time for scrapbooking.)
Lucas’ baby album began with the best of intentions, his ultrasound scans revealing his progress from a baby pea to a 10-pounder, but I’m ashamed to admit that his album ended on the day he was born, with a dozen polaroid photos hastily taken in the maternity ward. And since then? Seven years of empty pages, aside from the obligatory annual school portraits.
I finally rectified that this month, sorting, selecting and printing 100 of my favourite family photos to stick into a proper album. It took all day, largely because I kept being distracted by how much my children have grown (a good thing) and how much their parents have aged (not such a good thing), but also because it triggered so many memories along the way.
If a picture tells a thousand words, a family photo album deserves to have its say. Granted, the story mine tells is of a freelance gardening writer with a good friend in photographer Sally Tagg. “Why?” my children will no doubt wonder when they are adults, “were we always posing with giant pumpkins, piglets, passionfruit, paeonies or jars of preserves when we were kids?”
Should you feel likewise inspired to create your own album, do take the time to capture warm-fuzzy moments in the captions. (When Lucas saw his first baby lamb, he cried: “Look! Mum! It’s a tiny sheep kitten!”) Captions count because memory is fallible, and the last thing you want is a family photograph album full of faces that no one can put a name to when you are dead and gone.
LEFT: Lynda’s mum in the 1960s, posing in her shift dress and sandals, with “legs like a supermodel”. ABOVE: Photos of Lynda’s sons, chosen for her memory album.
Lynda spent a day at her desk, putting her pics in an album using photo corners, and going back through her family’s old albums.