On this day, seven years ago, the first man I ever loved slipped into darkness. I remember the day well. It was raining in New Jersey. I called my mom a couple times that morning, saw my first robin of the year, and drove home from college for the weekend. When I got to my house, there were cop cars, the front doors were wide open, and I knew right away that something bad had happened to my dad.
Seven years later, and this day still haunts me. It always will. His birthday, my parent’s anniversary, and the holidays are all also difficult. I doubt that will ever change.
Every year, on the anniversary of my dad’s death, I change my Facebook profile picture and cover photo to one of me with my dad. In a small way, it helps me cherish his memory and cope with his passing.
The photos are ones taken mostly by my mother, when I was a little girl. My family lived a pretty simple life – a comfortable house, modestly furnished, two cars. We never went on family vacations or went out to dinner and rarely participated in particularly momentous occasions. Yet my mom prioritized capturing everyday memories of my childhood. She had a little 35mm Kodak point-and-shoot camera – it was a very basic model, with no zoom, and when I got older it started to break periodically. Every time it broke, my dad found a way to fix it. Our photos were developed at Kmart, and my mom put them in albums.
As I got older and more independent, my mom less often took a part in my every day adventures, and as a result there were less photos of me, of my dad, and of our family in general. The photos I have from my middle school and teenage years rarely depict my family, and long gaps exist between captured memories.
Every year on this day, I find myself looking at the same photographs of my dad and I. In the majority of them, I range in age from toddler to middle school. There are ones of us on the Fourth of July, at Halloween, mowing the lawn and raking the leaves. In one, I am on his shoulders behind the old Grand Union and Kmart. In another I am sitting with him on the back of my uncle’s motorcycle. Of all the photos, I think there is only one of us anytime after I hit puberty – my dad and I are wrestling the cork out of a wine bottle and neither of our faces are visible. It was taken one Thanksgiving while I was in college.
I am so grateful to my mother for being an engaged and active parent. I cannot thank her enough for photographing my childhood as frequently and often as she did. Growing up, I know we didn’t have a lot of money, but my mom made sure that some of that went to buying and developing film, so she could capture those fleeting memories. Now, as the years pass and the memories become less vivid, I rely on those photos more and more. They help keep my dad alive in my heart and soul, even if he is no longer here with us in the way we all wish he still was.
If and when I ever have kids, I will photograph them often. I will capture their smiles and laughter on the most ordinary of days. I will photograph them with messy hair, stained shirts, and mouths full of food. I will photograph them with their father, their grandparents, their friends, and their pets. I will take selfies with my kids, and I’ll encourage them to use the camera and capture their world from their perspective. I will let them photograph what is important to them and take their photo when they ask me too, even if I feel too busy or too tired.
So often I focus on photography from a creative, technical, and artistic perspective. But rarely do I focus on photography’s most distinctive and unique quality: the ability of a photograph to capture a fleeting moment, a memory, and help that split second last forever. It’s magic.
If my mom hadn’t taught me that lesson long ago, today would feel a lot more empty.