Light Through the Aperture: Memories that Last a Lifetime

God bless the postman who brings the mail.

And bless the cowboys out on the trail.

Bless Mommy and bless Daddy who come each time I call.

God bless the folks I love, God bless us all.

Lyrics by Tom Murray, Music by Tony Burrello, 1953

I once took a quiz to define my priorities in life, listing the three possessions I would save if my house was on fire. The answer was the same then as it is now; family photos are numero uno on my list. And two and three as well, since I would lug through the flames as many albums as I could drag or throw. That was before the digital age, in which our collective family history is conveniently stored on my hard drive, though I imagine in my panic, I might heave my iMac out the window since my project of printing and sorting years of photos has yet to be accomplished. It may seem like dramatic heroics to rescue mere two-dimensional images, but these visual reflections of the past not only warehouse and catalogue individual moments, but also activate and develop the negatives in my memory, bringing the people, places, and times surrounding those moments back to life, in vivid 3D Technicolor. Pictures tell stories. Pictures reveal secrets. Pictures frame truths. Irreplaceable homages to what has been and never will be again, they are priceless.  

Not every moment is picture-perfect, yet collections from ordinary lives become extraordinary when viewed with the perspective of hindsight.

One of my most beloved candid photos of my daughter, Sydney was taken by my husband, Steven when she was about three. An extreme close-up, it’s cropped just above the eyes and below the lips. Her skin, a milky white, is so soft and supple it beckons to be touched. Coppery bangs hang past her eyebrows, and her beautiful bright blue eyes feature white Brushfield spots resembling stars and the recognizable almond shape of Down syndrome. She gazes directly into the camera with an expression that’s both contemplative and serene. A split second in time suspended like a bridge between then and now.

Another snapshot I adore is of our family of six at Thanksgiving years ago when the big kids, Melissa and Jeremy were home. We’re on the couch, squeezed in tight, Sydney and Haley in footie jammies – barely more than babies, stacked on laps. We’d been laughing because the timer kept snapping the picture before Steven could make it back. Pure joy, that I can still feel, is contained in that photo, the kind that prompts reminiscence -- traveling back through time -- when together we flip through old photo albums. Stories are embellished. Laughter is infused with nostalgia. Each person asks, “do you remember?” and adds another perspective, another piece to the tale. In the re-telling, it is re-lived.

Just home from our vacation, I’ve got loads of photos and memories in addition to the laundry. Our second summer combining road trip with camping, we set out towing our 5th wheel RV, traveling through eight states and covering 2,500 miles. That, by any definition, is a lot of family togetherness. We headed southeast and visited Disney World, the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. Last year, we drove through nine states including Montana, South Dakota and Nebraska, touring Yellowstone National Park, Mount Rushmore and the Omaha Zoo. And next year, we’ll travel northwest, from Colorado to Arizona to Oregon, seeing the Grand Canyon, the Oregon coast and the Wallowa Mountains where my parents grew up. We wanted to give our girls memories filled with exposure to different people and places (plus, it’s pretty cool to fill in the U.S. map on the side of our trailer.) Unplugging from our busy lives and hitting the road without looking back has been a remarkable adventure.

When I was a kid family vacations meant driving what seemed like forever in our Chevy Impala station wagon with wood paneling to visit Grandma and Grandpa. Starting out in either the back seat or the ‘back-back’ that faced the opposite direction, my brother and sister and I would climb over the top, from seat to seat, rough-housing, horsing around and fighting. I don’t remember what my brother did to cause my dad to blow his top, but I do remember when Dad shouted, “Stephen! Sit down and . . . and . . . sit Down! We giggled behind his back then and tease him to his face now. It’s still funny 40 years later. I’m sure my parents were relieved when, as the day came to a close, the seats were folded down and we’d sleep on a pallet of blankets and pillows while Dad drove us safely through the night.

Now, my girls sit buckled securely into their seats. Old enough to occupy themselves, we enjoy long stretches of companionable silence; Haley watching a movie, Sydney listening to music, me reading or even sleeping. And my sweet husband, as the dad, shoulders the burden of towing 11,000 lbs. through traffic, construction, mountain passes and severe weather. He drives us safely through the long days.

Don't get me wrong, it’s certainly not always that harmonious. Boredom leads to crankiness, or worse, the whining like fingernails on a chalkboard.

“Mom, Haley’s staring at me!"

"Mah-ah-OM! Sydney touched me!!”

Extremely cranky gives way to downright ornery. Once Haley refused to come after a rest stop and hid on the playground. We walked to the truck. We got in the truck. Steven started the truck. He even began to drive. I thought for sure that would scare her into action. Instead, as we slowly inched past the swings, she gave us a saucy grin and a princess wave. Steven slammed it into park.

“Oh, it’s on,” he said to me.

Striding half of the 50 yards toward her in three steps, he yelled, “I’m in no mood for this. Get in the *bleepin’* car, now!”

I had my own parental meltdown when I discovered the condition of the backseat. A Leapster, Nintendo and iPad, all out of their cases and carelessly strewn, lidless markers, playing cards, doll clothes, stuffed animals, CDs, half-eaten chicken nuggets, three sets of headphones with tangled cords, melted chocolate, torn pages from a coloring book and empty juice boxes all heaped in a massive pile. And covering the floor mats, a proprietary blend of pencil shavings, crushed Cheez-its and sand. Steven waited patiently as I halted progress towards our next outing and demanded they restore order, which meant, I threw things around while ranting at the girls.

“Blah, blah, blah, irresponsible! Blah, blah, blah, expensive! Blah, blah, blah, *bleep-it*!”  

But, I have to remember, this is what we signed up for by spending all of our time together. We learn to be better by being at our worst.

We learn to love each other, no matter what, and not just in spite of our annoying peculiarities, but because of them. Our personalities rub up against and bounce off one another, creating our own unique family dynamic. Temper might be flare, but forgiveness also comes quickly. We rebound, back on track.

At the entrance to the Magic Kingdom in Disney World is a photo opp with an elaborate background reading, “Let the Memories Begin!” We hug in close, grinning with anticipation, a beautiful, happy little family. Steven, protectively surrounds us, masculine, good-looking, I fit snugly under his arm, nurturing, vibrant and animated. Our daughters, all long-legged innocence, emanate exuberance, Haley, sports her Mickey ears and sunglasses, and Sydney with her coordinating floppy hat, clutches her snack. Click. Moment captured.

From that photo one might assume that we lived happily ever after, that we frolicked from ride to ride, ecstatic and delighted, that everyone’s expectations were met and our agenda flowing smoothly with no obstacles, that our every dream came true.

And one would be wrong.

A few uncontrollable impediments arose like brutal heat and suffocating humidity, alternating with thunderstorms, lightening and torrential rains. And crowds. Rude and aggressive crowds. Plus the transportation logistics, getting from point A to point B, as well as points X, Y and Z on Disney’s massive property by foot, by bus, or by boat, entailed nearly as much planning as our vacation.

But something I should have seen coming ended up threatening to derail our entire Disney experience: none of this was Sydney’s idea of fun. For starters, we quickly learned she was anxious about almost everything: the anticipation of the unknown, darkness—even partial, any attraction that moved—even slightly, any fantasy or visual effect, including but not limited to 3D. Let’s just say It’s A Small World was death by panic attack due to singing munchkins, and the Haunted Mansion, well, that was just a bad idea, period. Her low tolerance for extreme heat was apparent in her beet-red face. She was so tired walking mile after mile, she lagged miserably behind, while Haley raced ahead. The only thing that appealed to her was the myriad of food carts and snack shacks and she begged to stop at every one. And that was the first day.

So, we did what we always do as special needs parents—we adapted. I gave more thought to my precious girl’s needs and armed her with 1) better shoes; 2) a hat and a spray fan; 3) a snack she could carry with her; and 4) a flashlight. The next day, with renewed hope, we went back. And the next day and the next. We finished our four days at Disney by trading off riding the big rides with Haley and coaxing Sydney into attractions we knew she would enjoy. We were making it work.  

Then finally, in Hollywood Studios, a huge moving stage show wheeled across our path, singers and dancers exploding in celebration: Disney Channel ROCKS! Her favorite characters jumped and pirouetted and danced to her favorite hit music. She dominated the front row, singing with gusto and dancing with the cast; she had the moves like Jagger. Camera in hand to catch the bliss, I felt a catch in my throat and the relief that Sydney's dreams could also come true here.

Meanwhile, Haley turned out to be a rollercoaster baby. She’d ride once with Steven then again with me, exiting off the ride and talking in a breathless gush of exhuberance. She was in her element; non-stop stimulation and action. She loved every minute and nothing scared her (well, as I said, the Haunted Mansion? Baaaad idea all the way around).

Haley's excitement was contagious, and she and Steven convinced Sydney to ride Splash Mountain on our last day. With flashlight in hand, holding on to her dad, she talked herself through it.

“I’m overcoming my fear. I’m overcoming my fear. I'm overcoming my fear.” She repeated this to herself as we stood in line, her voice wavering with conviction the closer we got. Shakily, and with more than a little coercion, she boarded the log boat, clamping down on Steven's arm as he guided her in.  With her flashlight in both hands, she switched it on and pointed it toward her face at the first sign of low light. She loosened her grip a bit when things smoothed out, but nearly jumped on her dad at the first small acceleration. Using her breathing techniques and self-talk, "I'm overcoming my fear, I'm overcoming my fear," she started looking around and taking in the scene. And by the end of the ride, in the last steep drop, with the water spraying blowing her hair back, Sydney's joyful laugh, mouth opened wide, was captured in the action photo. The rest of the day we talked about how she overcame her fear. It was more than fun, it was a life lesson she will never forget.

The relaxation of the beach contrasted nicely with the busyness of Orlando. Thunderstorms followed us, but when the clouds parted, the glorious sun was worth the wait. The girls had never seen the ocean and the magic of their first time lived up to our expectations. In the early evening the beach stretched long toward the water and the mellowing sun hovered on the horizon. Haley plunged in to chase waves while Sydney held back where the water lapped at the shore. In my own peaceful reverie, I watched. Sydney, solitary, contented with exploring the water her own way, lay on her belly and let the surf wash over her. Steven, teaching Haley how to boogie board, held on until just before the swell broke and then guided her onto the crest to ride it in.

“Mommy! I caught my first wave!” she called to me.

"My girls are making their own childhood memories right now," I thought. "How will they remember this? What moments will they choose to extract and treasure?"

I wondered if Haley would say someday, "I remember when my Dad would throw me into the waves. It was amazing!"

Would she also remember that she was a little scared and would scramble to get back to him after being tossed, reaching out her hand until his fingers grasped and pulled her in safely? I hope that she will remember how he was always there for her when she needed him.

My own childhood memories drop like cardboard slides into a carousel, projecting on the screen of my mind.

1969: at the beach in Virginia, my mother, Jackie Kennedy scarf tied under her chin, blowing in the breeze, cat-eyed sunglasses adorning her young, radiant face, holding a baby on her hip; my brother and I, four and five, arms wrapped around her legs, smiling sweetly for the camera. I can smell the salt air and feel the boardwalk under my bare feet.

1971: in the woods of Canada, my father, young and virile, standing casually by a small log cabin he’d built just for us, axe in hand; the same baby sister—a tow-headed toddler now—standing in the door frame, looking up at him in adoration.

In the same Canadian woods, my mother taking us on a nature walk, teaching us the names of wildflowers. When it began to rain softly, she made a canopy in the lower branches of a beautiful old tree with a handmade quilt. The hush in the forest and the gentle sound of the rain on the blanket.

All the many camping trips, sleeping in tents, cooking and roasting marshmallows over the fire, before bed, my father playing his guitar and singing in his mellow tenor, a lilting lullaby, “God bless the postman, who brings the mail . . .”  

On the beach, I closed my eyes and hear him singing. Tears welled in my eyes instantly at the memory.

These vignettes are so deeply etched, sometimes I think my memories are intertwined with the fading photos in our family albums; I'm not sure what is real and what is in my mind. 

But, it doesn't really matter. Because my life is a photo mosaic; a luminously textured composition of highlights and shadows forming a panoramic vision. Awash with hues and tones and shades of color, indescribably beautiful as a whole, yet, when zooming in closer, an iridescently cascading depth of embedded impressions is exposed, a virtual kaleidoscope of people and places and times. Photos within photos within photos, superimposed and imprinted with seconds, years, and decades; a lifetime of memories. Backlit by its own ambient light, the sum of my existence radiates brilliance almost too magnificent to take in. 

At the end of our family's two-week journey, after a long day of driving, we make our last fuel stop. 2,400 miles in, we are less than 2 hours from home. Unfolding stiff legs and piling out of the truck, the girls and I limp inside for the last bathroom break. After pumping gas Steven finds us scanning the cold case for the last drinks we’ll buy; the mood is melancholy. Our trip is over.

The malaise I feel lifts when I see my husband tickle one daughter, tease another, then turn and do his ‘goofy’ walk to the register—a sort of skipping, hopping caricature he often pantomimes that never fails to make us laugh. Vacation might be over, but the memories are mine for the keeping. After paying, Daddy leads the way out and the girls follow, single file. “Let’s go home, ladies,” he tosses over his shoulder. Haley, right behind him, repeats in her little voice, “Let’s go home, ladies.” Sydney chimes in, “Let’s go home, ladies.” And bringing up the rear, I add, “Let’s go home.”

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