When we were kids, my siblings and I would put in one of our home videos and watch ourselves as even younger kids do whatever things kids do in front of cameras. We loved it, waiting for our moment in the spotlight and then laughing at the absolutely hilarious things we said or did. It was our way of affirming about our own family what David Sedaris wrote about his: “Ours is the only club I’d ever wanted to be a member of.”
So, being home over Thanksgiving and Christmas, I did something reminiscent of those home-video-watching days: I sifted through old photographs of my family, most of which I don’t remember having seen before. My siblings weren’t around to laugh with me, though, so I laughed by myself and tried to get my mom and dad–whichever was passing through the kitchen (or not working) at the moment– to join in when I’d find a really good one. I made stacks of the ones I wanted to keep and then used an iPhone to take pictures of them so that I’d be able to look at them whenever I wanted. (I didn’t want the responsibility of carrying around the originals, for fear I’d lose them or ruin them forever. The downside is that some of my pictures-of-pictures aren’t very good, because lights and shadows are just hard to work with, you know?)
One might think that I would have gotten tired of looking at old photos at that point, especially old photos that I had already looked at. But I hadn’t. I wasn’t tired of it at all, and the more I looked at them, the more I wanted to look at them. I went through them on my phone after going through their physical copies, and I would stop at each one, studying it, as if fitting it into a puzzle. In fact, that’s exactly what I was doing: in these photographs, I found pieces of my childhood that I didn’t know existed and pieces of myself that I didn’t know were so visible. These photographs told a slightly different story than the one my siblings and I have come up with about ourselves over the past several years; they were an anchor to an otherwise free-floating and constantly-adapting sense of self and family. In statistics, the more data you have showing a particular pattern, the more you can trust that it is telling you something. There were so many photographs showing the same patterns, and the more I studied them, the more I started trusting what they were saying.
In the beginning (my beginning, of course), the photographs of my sister Caitlin and me show an adoring younger sister (me) and a lively, animated older sister (Caitlin). Her hair was constantly messy, her face smiling, and her posture always caught in some movement. Meanwhile, I looked on with eyes of admiration. My smile was one of pride, and even though I don’t show as much fearlessness or carefreeness, I look like I’m just happy to be there.
When my brother Caleb was born, not much changed in Caitlin’s appearance or activity, but I had a new role: now I was an older sister, and I seemed to revel in it. From two days after Caleb was born, I am pictured holding him, cuddling him, or trying to get close to him. I must have believed he was like one of my beloved dolls come to life. Even when he is a toddler and a little boy, I am still there, hugging him, playing with him, treating him like precious cargo. I adored him.
Connor was born when Caleb was four and I was six, and the pictures are very much the same as when Caleb was born, only I was not so small. The pictures show me holding her or putting my fingers in her closed hand, and even when we’re both older– I in elementary school and she as a toddler and then an elementary school kid herself– she is seen clinging to me as I stand there with a smile, like I both welcomed it and was used to it. Not long after, our relationship would be very different, when I went through my teenage need to separate from my family to be an ‘individual.’ We eventually came back around to find each other as friends, but only after a lot of years and a lot of hurt. These pictures look so innocent and loving. It almost hurts me to look at them, knowing I was so open and affectionate at one point in my life.
The pictures that make me happiest, though, are those with my dad in them. If I had to guess, there aren’t as many pictures of my mom and us kids because she was more comfortable being behind the camera. But, as a result, we have some really good ones with my dad. He’s not doing much in some of them– just sitting, standing, or lying on his back– but he’s still engaged with us somehow, whether it’s holding us up in a circus-like hold or sitting between us as we take some weird pose around him, or even reading to one of us while the other two play in the foreground. I like these pictures because they’re reminders that our dad was present in our childhoods; he wanted to be around us.
That’s what keeps drawing me back to these pictures, I think, over and over again: the unrestrained joy, in all of its various comportments. So different from the stoicism we showed (more like I showed– see below) when others were around, these pictures show the unfiltered expression of who we are underneath all we’ve become, underneath the layers of socialization and self-consciousness. They are evidence of a happy and safe childhood, of children who were wanted by the adults in their life and who were enjoyed by them. The adults– my parents, in particular– gave us enough boundaries to feel protected, and within that safety, which cannot be overstated, we experienced the freedom to play, which in turn gave us the freedom to become. Aside from a perhaps unconscious wisdom of how fleeting childhood is, the fact that my parents took pictures and videos of us in our most candid moments reveals how much they believed our personalities worth cherishing.
And perhaps most poignantly, they tell me something that I had forgotten through the years of hormones and silence and political discord: that not only did my parents love us, but at one point, long ago, they liked us, too. And to a child, that makes quite a difference.