Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Misty Watercoloured Sepia-Toned Glasses

This afternoon, at some point, I had a really great idea for a blog entry. Something I really wanted to discuss with whoever it is that reads this (Hi, Mum!), something a little fun and a little thought provoking.

And then I went to my parent's house for my sister's birthday dinner and was drawn, like the proverbial moth to the flame, to the photo drawer (we've never been the scrapbooking/album making types) and it obliterated every thought I had in my head. And now I don't remember what the hell I was going to tell you about.

(I used to have an incredible memory. When I worked at the opera the first time around, I was like a human back-up disk for our donor database. I could remember donors' postal codes, for pete's sake! And now? Not so much. I really need to start playing those sudoko games or something to sharpen my wits. Except I always forget how they work.)

So, instead, let me tell you about the family photo drawer. I love, no I lurrrrve the photo drawer at my parents house. It's a big, wide, shallow drawer in a huge oak wall-unit that they've had since the late 60s, and it's absolutely stuffed with photographs, negatives and a few boxes of slides. Remember slides? Why was it that sometime in the 70s everyone went to slides? Was it because they were nice and small to store? Because surely to God they didn't come into vogue because finding a place to project them was so much fun. Remember the hum of the slide projecter, and that delicious schlish-click noise as the slides changed? Oh, and the smell of hot dust from the light bulb? Oh, slides.

Anyway, the drawer is full to bursting with photographs, all loosey-goosey, no organization whatsoever, most of them not even labelled. There are lots of black and whites from the 60s when my parents first came to Canada and had a darkroom of their own (the photo-enlarger is still in their basement if anyone's interested), and many of the prints are somewhat curled as I went through a period as a child where I liked to roll them into cylinders, I don't know why. Then there's lots of colour photos from the late 70s/early 80s where the photos have this interesting matte texture. I somehow remember that you could choose whether you wanted them developed in glossy or matte and my mum liked matte because then fingerprints weren't an issue, which was important when your youngest daughter is forever manhandling the photos. There are pictures of my brother's bike races (Ontario Junior Champion at 14, don't you know!) and my mother's art work over the years, pictures of the house in all stages of renovation (two additions, several interior changes and at least two porches built since 1971), pictures of my father and brother building stuff, Christmas pictures, more pictures of the family cats than anyone cares to see (besides me), and way, way too many pictures of my embarrassing haircuts circa 1983-89.

Then there are the millions of vacation photos. Now, in our family, "vacation photos" doesn't mean pictures of people sipping mai-tais at a swim up bar in Cuba. For us, "vacation photos" means picture after picture of buildings and streets and trees and patterns and reflections of light on water and details of textiles in castles (never mind the gilt walls and Meissen tea-service, would you look at these tassels???) and photos of ravens eating our leftover cheesecake on top of a Bavarian mountain, and snow shadows and lichen and pebbles and, on one memorable occasion, my mother's hind end in the air as she picked blueberries on the side of a cliff in Cape Breton. And numerous, dimly lit (and therefore slightly blurry because the film was too slow) pictures of paintings and artifacts in galleries and museums. Our vacation pictures must be incredibly dull for other people to look at, but then, they're never taken with the purpose of showing other people. They're taken by us, for us, to remind us of the little specifics that we hang our family memories on. For example, in the past decade I have been to Dessau twice. Both times, without thinking, I managed to take the same photograph of the same railyard from the same bridge. There's something delightfully old-school DDR about the track/power line arrangement that caught my eye. Twice. But the point is, I didn't take the pictures for your viewing, I took them to remind me, years from now when the former East has been fully spruced up by the German government, of how it used to look.

There are pictures of my parents' relatives, mostly on my mother's side although we do now have a few copies of old pictures from my father's side thanks to my father's cousin in Berlin. Tons of old black & whites (well, sepia-ish, actually) of New Years parties and other celebrations with people I've never even heard of. There are a handful of mystery photos of people we truly never knew that somehow have gotten mixed into our photo drawer. There are baby pictures and wedding pictures and endless class pictures and a few newspaper clippings and the thing is that each one of these artifacts is absolutely, 100% precious to me.

Actually, all old photos, whether they belong to my family or yours, are precious to me. I tend to live in the past, and not necessarily my own past. I don't know why this is, but I've always been this way. I have always loved to listen to my mother's stories about growing up in Berlin during and after WWII, so much so that in many ways her stories have become my stories (stories which I will pass on to anyone who cares to listen, ad nauseum, by the way) and when I go to Berlin I don't see the city as it is, I see it as it was. Which, of course, is impossible as there is no "was" for me in Berlin, but I tell you that's how it is.

(I suspect it's because the past is known. It doesn't move around, it's there to be analysed, dissected, revered and enjoyed. Whereas the future is unknown and I'm not that comfortable with the unknown. The picture above is of me in my favorite place as a very small child, the laundry basket. I liked being in there because I was safe, I could see my mother, and I knew the boundaries. Doesn't that say it all?)

I have always loved reading autobiographies and memoirs, and spent a bizarre (now that I think about it) amount of time as a youngster reading about old Hollywood stars and the studio system when everyone else was reading Bruno & Boots or Choose-Your-Own-Adventure-Books. I was the 12-year old who knew about Sam Goldwyn and Darryl Zanuck and Irving Thalberg and Fatty Arbuckle, for goodness sake. I was a weird kid.

But I digress -- the point is, that really, when it comes right down to it, what I've always loved are stories. Real stories, based on real lives, on what really happened, or at least our interpretation of what really happened. And that's what our photo drawer, and your photo albums or scrapbooks or boxes of slides, are all about. Stories. Tales. Legends. Family. What came before you and what shaped you. This is what I like to know. You.


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