December 12, 1999 - Note from the Editor: We received this week's piece from our contributor, Margaret Wyles, and it reminded us that Swans is not just about politics, but also about thoughts and ideas. With the holiday season upon us, her well-written story about old photographs seems a propos.
There are too many things these days. As a parent of two small children, I am constantly stepping on, often breaking, the plastic toys that litter the living room, often mere remnants of a once complete object of amusement. Small body parts, car parts, the occasional lego stepped on barefoot, causing my tolerance level to degenerate to hyperscream as I set down, once again, new and firm rules to clean up this mess once and for all.
But I really can't blame them. Stuff just accumulates in our house, gathered from other houses, from birthday party "goodie bags" that parents hate, but without which children feel underprivileged, five or six catalogs a day...you know, the stuff modern life is made of.
One can easily dispense with these items as "junk," cured by a garbage bag or two once a month. But what about the family photographs that beg for organization, the mountains of which, desperate for attention, cascade on to the floor, eroding any previous attempts to classify them. Maintaining a library of these photographs has become the part time occupation of every parent. It is not enough now, as it once was, to closet them away in a box, and open them periodically. Now they must be artistically presented in a "Memory" book, to which further hours and dollars must be invested.
Add to photographs the hours and hours of "family video" time, capturing such warm moments as 20 minutes of little Jack sucking his thumb as talk radio blares in the background. I could go on. But if you've ever had to endure someone else's home videos, you need no further examples.
In contrast, I remember the magic as my father, on rare and special occasions, would haul out the old 16 mm projector, a heavy metal machine that needed to be painstakingly rethreaded with the insertion of each small 10 minute roll of film. A process which invariably evoked my father's fiery nature, causing him to swear at the projector, and by logical extension, every piece of machinery ever made and every person ever involved in the making thereof.
The family was not dissuaded by these tensions. We were intimate family members to which these erratic outbursts were simply background accompaniment to the event.
We all had our parts to play, with my mother forever trying to pacify my dad, my grandmother expressing her worries about whatever thought might cross her mind. But one role we all shared was reveling in the enjoyment of a precious few memories of a past which recedes further and further into the hidden caverns of our minds. We laughed each time we saw Uncle Bill, whom I never knew in living form, as he stood perfectly still, so new was the movie camera, he hadn't realized it would capture him in movement. We laughed in knowing anticipation as my cousin Michael would appear on screen, always in tears. Had we known those tears would prescribe a life of addiction and disappointment, we might have muffled our laughter. But we were innocent of such adult matters.
Photographs? There's the one photograph I have of my grandfather leaning forward in his living room chair, displaying the serene pleasure in being surrounded by his grandchildren. There's the one photograph of my cousin Patty, who died at the age of two. I never knew her. And then there's the image of a man who's eyes still inspire, his photograph the only tangible evidence of a love affair never realized.
Why is the one more valued than the many? Perhaps it is true what the Navajo believe - that part of our souls are captured in each photograph. So it may be that in the bags and boxes that clutter our bookshelves, our souls are so diffused, they lack the completion of a single photograph.
In the world of photos and films, like so much else in life, less is truly more.
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