On my birth announcement, my mother wrote my full name in green ink next to a black and white infant photo of my disembodied head. My two middle names are those of my maternal and paternal grandmothers, since my parents did not want to choose one and offend the other. At the bottom of the announcement, my mother has written “She is a doll!”
I’m in the process of remaking my baby book. Sometime in the 1980s, my mother collected all the old family photos she had and distributed them into adhesive albums representing each of my brothers’ and my respective childhoods. By the late 1990s, “scrapbooking” had become a verb in the English lexicon. Craft stores exploded with scrapbook supplies, and it was announced that everybody’s old picture albums with the sticky-back pages were slowly poisoning our family photos. Our matte and glossy prints needed to be rescued from these toxic books and preserved in acid-free, lignin-free environments before the images disappeared completely! My baby book is one such time bomb.
As I use a piece of dental floss to carefully extricate the photos from the book to remount them in an archival safe album, I’m getting increasingly irritated at my deceased mom for her practice of closely cropping the photos around the people. The book is full of imperfect circular photos and little people-shaped cutouts, leaving unseen any possible contextual information in the background that might create a fuller picture of my life, such as a house we lived in or an exterior landscape. She wrote notes in the margins such as “In the house on the golf course” or “On a trip to Lake Powell,” but I question the usefulness of any of those identifiers without the visuals that would have given them meaning. It’s frustrating to try to reconstruct my own history when I can just see the corner of a sofa or the toes of someone’s foot next to me, toddler-sized, on the floor.
I want to be grateful to my mother just for making the baby book. I should be content to have these photos of me at different ages, some including her, my brothers, and our pets. As far as I know, there is only one photo that was ever taken of my entire nuclear family, and thank goodness, she has not cropped that. It is a 2x3 color print of me in a baby stroller with my brothers squatting on either side of me, and my mother and father are standing behind me with their hands on the stroller. My mother is looking at the camera, my father and my brothers are looking at me, and I am looking at my oldest brother, who is making me smile. It appears to be a casual, pleasant family moment. I have no memory of my father, who died when I was a baby, so images and stories are all I have to go on. My mother always painted a rosy picture of him as I was growing up, and it would be many years before I would learn that what was going on in our lives was anything but harmonious.
Apparently, my father’s sister knew there was discord between my parents, but she loved them both and chose not to take sides when they battled. When I asked my aunt for more of the details that had always been muddied for me, she said in her slow and gentle way, “Sometimes two people just aren’t meant to be together, you know? What’s important is that we remember the good, and with a breath of kindness, we blow the rest away.”
I can see in the picture now that my mother and brothers seem to form a protective triangle around my stroller, while my father is off to the side, just one hand on the handle. If my mother had cropped this photo, it’s possible only his hand would be left. Perhaps her penchant for cutting out the backgrounds of photos was her breath of kindness, erasing any visual cues that would tattle on the pain. By cropping and saving the people, she was choosing to keep the focus on the good.
Probably she was just trying to fit more photos on the page.
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