After My Mom's Death, I Developed A Seemingly Innocent Habit. Then It Spiraled Out Of Control.

"In my mind, it’s hard to know what to save, what to delete and what is gone forever. I hoard digital memories hoping they will safeguard me from future loss."
The author and her mother, circa 1980.
The author and her mother, circa 1980.
Photo courtesy of Natalie Serianni

“Hold Still!” I tell my girls, who are clenching their teeth and smiling, “Cheeeeese.” My daughters, 5 and 9, are kneeling by a pumpkin, my youngest with her missing front tooth, my oldest with her shiny gold hair tickling her face.

I begin to take pictures, rapid-fire, only to be interrupted by my phone flashing: “Cannot Take Photo.” This is not the first time my phone has shamed me for being unable to “Manage My Storage.” It started when my children were born, and now there are 22,383 pictures and 855 videos that I just can’t delete, taking up residence on my iPhone.

It’s not uncommon to have a large number of pictures on our phones. Today, our memories are linked to our devices, and our culture tells us not to miss anything for fear of missing out (FOMO).

Yet, my phone camera reflects something else: The way the loss of my mother has colored my experience of motherhood. To compensate for the hole my mother’s death left in my life, I keep every picture of my kids, even blurry duplicate pictures that somehow, in the wake of my mother’s absence, feel sacred.

Preserving each moment of my daughters’ lives for posterity, my thumb always hovering over the trash can symbol, unable to press down, for many years felt like an armor against the loss of others in my life. As the real memories of my mother faded like an old Polaroid, I became artificially attached to all the images of my oldest’s first steps and my youngest singing happy birthday to herself.

In my mind, it’s hard to know what to save, what to delete and what is gone forever. I hoard digital memories hoping they will safeguard me from future loss. Losing my mother showed me that my worst fear will come true: One day, I won’t be here for my girls. The missing and the knowing have metabolized me into something more than a mother without a mother: Now, I am a memory-keeper.

My mother died of a brain aneurysm when I was 25. I found out the news at 6:30 a.m., hungover at a wedding in Cincinnati, Ohio. I walked back into my hotel room, having stayed up all night, to a friend handing me the receiver of a hotel room phone. When I put the phone to my ear, I wasn’t even thinking of my mother.

“Natalie,” my dad said, his voice cracking over the line. “She’s gone,” I remember the whoosh, that tunnel feeling, looking down at the business-brown hotel carpet below my feet. I dropped the phone, looked out the window, and fixated on a brick building across the way. Those bricks held how my mother held all of us her whole life: Holding my 3-year-old hand and a baby on her denim-clad hip. Holding a steaming plate of pasta over the family table. Holding us all together.

After the funeral, and many months after, I couldn’t face my mother’s death. How I missed the smell of her Clinique perfume. The silk of her blouse on my cheek when we hugged, the taste of her Revlon-red lips. More than anything, I was impatient with grief, the barnacle it had become. It pulled me to the bottom.

Five years later, I met my husband. Meeting him was CPR for my grief-struck system. I took one look at his kind eyes and square jaw and knew we’d be moving forward together. Being with him felt big, like being in a room that’s been renovated and expanded. There was space to breathe again.

That space grew over 10 years of marriage, and over time, I filled it with countless pictures of our babies and family adventures. The number of pictures on my iPhone was soon out of control, as my husband’s disapproving eyes made clear. And I felt it, too: How the openness of our early relationship was now overrun by my need to capture and save each moment. But every time I tried to whittle my collection closer to my husband’s reasonable, tidy 200, I panicked.

My husband has never been lost or lost anything. But here I was, 20 years after my mother’s death, still hurting and hanging onto a mine of old memories. I still missed my mom. Pictures of my family, all heads squished together in the frame, made me feel close to my childhood of Donna Summer songs, happy meals, and cherry cheesecake.

My picture saving forced me to keep every still, every nuance, and every angle of my kids as photographic evidence I could return to. Even the out-of-focus snapshots were proof of life. I was digitizing my memory, documenting that they were here, and I was, too. We were together. It became a compulsion, needing to keep reminders, a record of this happiness.

My phone had become the family archive, a virtual storage unit. Freezing every digital and real memory, lest I lose it all, was exhausting. It became too much to manage.

***

When my daughters were first born, I quickly became consumed: with death. After my oldest’s birth, early motherhood magnified my fears: airplane rides, large crowds, and small spaces. Postpartum anxiety crowded every thought, convincing me that my baby, babbling in the backseat of my car, was going to die in my care. And that I might die, too.

My fears made it impossible to leave my kids. One time, my husband and kids were set to go camping without me. They packed up, seatbelts on, and my waterworks began.

“Mommy’s going to miss you so much,” I sobbed as I walked around from one side of the car to the other, barefoot in the bright July Seattle sun of our driveway. I kept kissing and hugging them, reaching for them on tiptoes through the car window. My oldest daughter, her hands twisting in her lap, began to cry. My youngest, in her car seat, stared at me through her curls, confused.

“Well,” said my husband quietly, eyeing me in the rearview mirror, a mixture of love and concern in his eyes. “I think it’s time to wrap this up.” I could feel him pleading with me at this moment, for all moments: Please, let us go. His frustration was about more than this goodbye: The way fear had taken me over.

When they drove away, I was left on the sidewalk with a twist in my stomach and a knowing: I was terrified to lose again. My mother’s death extended into every encounter with my family, sucking the air out of all my spaces at the expense of everyone’s breathing. I was haunted into holding everything too tight.

***

I had to learn to build a different kind of archive, a living highlight reel: One where I put down my phone and enjoy a mid-day dance party to Lizzo or lick the brownie bowl clean with my girls. These moments with my kids are a portal to my mother. When I’m connected to them all, I am alive.

While my inclination is to hold on, I am trying to release. I’m shedding my habit of clinging to my people, loosening the vice grip on my children and my mother’s absence, and allowing the beauty of the fleeting moment in. I don’t want a digital legacy for my girls. I want them to know in their bones that my love is fierce and real. I want them to hear what I whisper to their hearts: I will show you the bigger picture of this life and love you beyond existence.

Instead of stockpiling memories to look at later, I’m inhabiting every inch of experiences. I relish the morning snuffles as I rouse my youngest and the crooked canines filling my oldest’s mouth. It’s what we can’t explain or capture on camera that forges us as a family. I can’t hold on to them or digitize my memory. And I no longer want to.

A few months ago, my family and I went on a short trip to the San Juan Islands. The weekend was drizzly, covered by low clouds; gorgeous grays and a rugged coastline surrounded our rental house. We took a walk to the beach one afternoon, the smell of salt and seaweed leading us to the sand. My oldest, her long limbs skipping gracefully in the sand, her 5-year-old sister, further down the beach, squatty thighs pouncing on crabs in tide pools. The seagulls circled low overhead.

“Shoot,” my husband said, turning to me. “I forgot my phone.” Enchanted by the scene, I took a breath. I felt what was mine.

In the frame was my family, with the still lingering but lifting fog of my mother’s life. I saw the sea, my growing babies, and how all this love was a wave of now and before. Even as it changes, it will not disappear. Even if they lost me, I would not disappear. My memory lives within them, not inside any device. I am here.

“We don’t need it,” I whispered over my shoulder to my husband. I soaked up the landscape of possible memories in front of me. Without my camera lens to frame the experience, the world cracked open. I stood there, admiring the expanse.

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