There is something comforting about holding a photo in my hand, to feel the thickness and texture of the paper on which the image has been printed, and to see the dull or glossy finish of that image. It is very much like holding an open book on my lap. It presents me with a clearly defined turf—left and a right page, with corners to orient myself. I can focus on a single page without losing sight of the whole text. I know where the book begins and ends and the relationship of the page to the book. I can even hold the page between my fingers, hearing the distinctive sound the paper makes when turned. There is a rhythm to turning the pages of a paper book, much like leaving footprints, one after another on a sandy trail—it forms a visible record of how far one has traveled. Friends argue that the digital text of an e-reader or touch-screen device can also be “traveled” by scrolling down. “Yes, but it has no thickness or shape. Its text is intangible; it’s a transitory image,” I argue back. “And it’s cold,” I add.
I pick up a photo album and with the first page, the warmth of sweet memories of people, places and traditions swarm through the honeycomb chambers of my heart. I immediately step back and retreat to the world of tangible images narrating the stages of my life from early childhood into adulthood, one snapshot at a time. The current years of my bountiful life are recorded through images that come with delete buttons to edit and eliminate frowns from faces of children and adults. They are stored in digital form to be viewed on an ethereal screen of a phone or computer. As I sort through the photographs of my Kodak and Polaroid moments of childhood, I think how strange it is that I, who claimed to be the designated agent of change for my generation and culture, would now end up as a traditionalist, favoring the tangible over the ethereal. Wasn’t my generation the one that upturned the culture of our times, with preconceived ideas about families and relationships? About marriages and divorce? About moving on and moving ahead? About tut-tutting my parents’ generation for their “old fashioned” ideas while my grandparents became the chronological arc between the two? Then I became a parent caught up in the shuffle of raising children while the grandparents, invested with a sense of time, created the bridge across generations. As a parent I became the forward momentum of my children’s life. Now, as a grandparent, I have become the keeper and collector of traditions of my children’s children. How odd that I, of all people, have become the curator of memories, the builder of family traditions and the narrator of stories past. Yet, it is the business of grandparents to create memories through the traditions of our families and cultures. We want to capture moments and experiences that personify the wisdom of a culture through snapshots and storytelling. It is one way that we bond with the grandchildren who are drawn to tradition with the same natural ease that they are drawn, ironically, toward the latest computer games and digital screen.
“Let’s look at some pictures,” says my three year old granddaughter. I pull out another photo album. “No, not in there, in here,” she exclaims as she hands me my phone. The Polaroid and Kodak moments of my childhood and parenthood have already been replaced by the digital camera and omnipresent cell phone lens of grandparenthood. Her warm little fingers swipe with ease and speed the fleeting images captured in my phone. She stops at one. It is a picture of both grandchildren, each with a book on their laps, reading. I smile. She points the phone lens towards me. “Cheese.” The phone lens detects the catch word and automatically clicks at my grin. “I’m not so pretty in this picture,” I say and right then and there, in an instant, she presses the delete button. The snapshot is erased. “I love you,” I whisper as she spontaneously hugs me tight, while my five year old grandson climbs on my back to play a game of “falling tower,” a tradition of sorts in our family.
Some memories come with no snapshots and can only be felt.
This Christmas, may you transform the photo-album of your experiences into memories that line the hallways in the honeycomb chambers of your hearts. Merry Christmas!