When Lucy and I scrolled through an old photo album of mine to find some childhood pictures, she made a poignant observation. My grandmother rarely appears in the numerous photographs depicting family events. It was her, holding the camera, taking the everlasting images, commemorating moments and documenting the family.
That night, long after Lucy had left, I lay awake in my bed and thought about my grandmother and how meticulous her photographic ritual was. She filled shelf after shelf for decades; there was so much dedication, care and precision involved. Her handwriting had always been a source of comfort to me. Her descriptive phrases including details like dates, names and places before a fading memory would swallow them slowly. So much effort went into the creation of these colourful albums.
I think it all stopped when my grandfather died, when the family started to gradually disintegrate, when maintenance of a holy world was neglected, the outside portrayal, the outward projection, the facade. It wouldn’t hold anymore. Some images cannot be upheld. Was he the double-edged glue that held us all together? Did we even want to be together? Were our gatherings forced regiments of togetherness? Were we following an imagined idyll that required tedious work? I loved these family ceremonies as a kid.
My grandmother’s values lie in those albums. They were a lot of work, but I think she loved doing it up to the point where things started to fall apart in order to regenerate. She captured everything. Pride. Laughter. Childhood. Euphoria. Pivotal key-moments of life and everything in-between. Maybe she thought that nobody cared anymore so why should she? When she sold her house and left it, the albums from her own past were abandoned there, I thought it was completely out-of-character for her. You never get them back. There is life in those objects. In retrospect, she would have liked to have had one more look, maybe grab a few or all of them and say her unhastened goodbyes, but her decisions had been made. My mother saved all of our albums and my sister saved mine from degenerating in a wet garage. I couldn’t be more thankful.
These albums were a life’s work in many ways. They entailed my grandmother’s hopes, ideals and desires, how she wanted her life to be, what it should look like, how family should be an incorruptible union, a peaceful assembly of like-minded people, celebrating, decorating, singing and feasting. What my grandmother documented was a dream of hers and as kids, a reality. I can only speak for myself, narrate my perspective. This image of the woman with her instrument, her camera, held tightly in her hands, selecting and collecting the ephemeral treasures, moves me deeply and how she made everything immortal by materialising what is otherwise a thing bound to mere memory.
This was her world, where she could breathe, where she could construct, where she had everything she wanted, perhaps, comfort and a sense of accomplishment.
“Ophelia (etching)” by Anna Lea Merritt (1844-1930)