Photographs and the Art of Letting Go

Personal photographs can be powerful entities. Instantly we are transported back to the moment the camera flashed. Silly grins. Outdated fashion. Awkward personal space. When we look at old pictures, we squint and ask ourselves, “Did I really look like that? Was I ever that young? Was I ever that innocent?” Old photographs may give us warm fuzzies, but they also require us to come to terms with past feelings of hurt and anger. There are people staring back at you who have hurt you, torn your heart apart. Time, though, has given you a gift. With age, you realize you also inflicted pain. Your regrets consume you. And as you gaze at these faded photos, you decide to let go, releasing the resentment you’ve hung onto for years. You begin to forgive others and yourself. You remember the sweet joy, the giggles, the softness that surrounded the moments in the photographs. 

A few weeks ago when I was visiting my mother, she brought out some pictures from my first wedding. “Do you want these?” she asked, “Because, if not, I’m throwing them away.” As I flipped through them I said, “Yes, I’ll keep them.” At first she looked a little shocked, but I said, “Mom, these are important. The formal album was lost in the divorce, and you possess the only copies left. Maybe the boys will want these some day. And man, look how cute I was back then!”

Later, after I return home, I spread the photos on our table. Taken almost thirty years ago, I spy glimpses of youth, of promises made, of hope. I remember my dad walking me down the aisle of Westminster Presbyterian Church, acting as though it was the red carpet as he smiled at all the assembled guests. I am reminded of how Bill and I giggled through the ceremony. I see the faces of my dear friends, most of whom are still extraordinary people in my life. Snippets of the reception float through my consciousness: our first dance, my dad enjoying the band, my mother’s smile, Aunt Bug and Uncle Jack, Bill’s parents, all of our friends, and the happiness of that day.

As I am perusing the pictures, I notice another one my mother had added. It is a formal photo from my sister’s wedding the next year. Staring back at me is us: Bill, me, and two month old Christopher. With a tilt of the head, I was transported back to the fog and joy of those first few months of parenthood. Onesies and formula and sleepless nights. Bill falling asleep on the couch with Chris on his chest. Our dreams of the future all wrapped up in this little human being. I see our family.

I begin to breathe, to forgive, to let go. Selfishly, I no longer want to feel the weight of it all. It requires too much energy to hold on to the old shit. I am lighter, almost floating with the freedom. Herman Hesse once wrote, “Some of us think holding on makes us strong, but sometimes it is letting go.” I am releasing into the universe all that I used to clutch and scream “Mine!” if anyone dared question it, because you see, I no longer require any of it. Most importantly, I am forgiving myself. I am stronger than my resentments, my anger, my gripes.

For now the photos will be tucked away in a drawer, but I am grateful for their gifts: reminders of joyful moments and the wonderful liberation that comes with letting go.

The Last Guardian of the Street

A few days ago the last guardian of the street said her farewells. She was the last of the families that had at one magical time graced Riverview Avenue. Her white house held court up at the corner, looking over both the 15 and 16 hundred blocks of Riverview, a street that never did have a river nor a view. 

Fifty years ago, though, the neighborhood sang with the voices of children as we organized games of kickball in the street, appointing one child the job of lookout at the top of the hill who yelled “car!” when one was spotted. We scattered, allowing the automobile to pass, and then resumed our game, sometimes mid-play.

Most of the families had two to four children, providing built-in friends for my siblings and me. My best friend Michelle lived down the block in a neat, white brick home. My sister’s and brothers’ friends were scattered up and down the tree-lined street. On warm summer evenings we met in our front lawns to play games of Ghost or Red Rover or Statue.

Family names like Kester, Steele, Yettaw, Stahulik, Fisher, Loftus, and Beyer peppered the two blocks. Doors were rarely locked. We wandered in and out of each other’s houses carrying balls, board games, and Barbies. Most days we ruled the neighborhood, exploring the gully or the gravel pit. Rainy days sent us to our basements where we played marathon sessions of Yahtzee or “School.”

My sister Ann is four years younger than me. When you are growing up, four years can seem like decades. When I was discovering Jim Croce and John Denver, Ann and her best friend Ann Beyer were giggling over the Bay City Rollers. They poured over Tiger Beat, googling Leif Garret and other cute teen pop stars. My dad would often ask, “What are those girls screaming about now?” I would just shrug and stick my nose back in the book I was reading.

The Anns and their friend Jani formed a fierce pre-teen trifecta. They often met at the Beyer house after school where Ann’s mother would serve snacks on a tray. Our messy house had a choice of the hose or Dixie cups of Kool-aid, so according to my sister, we couldn’t compete with Mrs. Beyer’s tidy home.

As the seventies moved into the eighties and nineties, families began to move away, one by one. As the new century approached, the only ones remaining were the Beyers and my parents, but even that eventually fractured as my dad’s memory faded and my mother moved to a smaller home in a senior community.

Mrs. Beyer was the last guardian of the street. After she lost her husband, she kept to herself, mostly spending time with her daughter and granddaughters. And now she’s gone, leaving the memories of Riverview Avenue to those of us who recklessly careened our bikes down the hill or played hours of four-square at the end of driveways. We can still hear our mothers calling us home for dinner. We often feel the cool spray of the sprinklers we jumped through on hot afternoons. And we will never forget the freedom we held tightly during those treasured sepia-colored days.

We, the children of Riverview, the holders of those precious snapshots of childhood, say goodbye and thank you to the last guardian of the street. Or as they say in the Navy, “Fair winds and following seas, m’am. We have the watch.”


A Little Place for Our Stuff

“That’s all you need in life, a little place for your stuff. That’s all your house is- a place to keep your stuff.” – George Carlin

Moving and downsizing is an exhausting exercise in figuring out what stuff is indispensable and what stuff is superfluous. Every item is a debate in my head. “Will this fit in our new house? What if I miss it when it’s gone? Does it give me joy? Will it give someone else joy?” I hyperventilate over random batteries and spare change stuck in the back of drawers. 

So I take breaths and calm my mind. No, it won’t fit. Sell it! Donate it! Throw that crap away. No one wants that shit.

Old furniture has sold to new owners. Boxes of dishes, linens, clothes, and other goods donated to a local charity. Books dropped off for the library sale. Our garbage bin continues to fill with broken things no one can fix.

But there are still items pulling at my heart. Pieces that will travel with us to fill our new, smaller space. My mom’s old music hutch covered in her hand-painted lilacs. A Hummel of my Aunt Bug’s. My grandmother’s quilts. A stone heart I found on a California beach. A wicker basket holding all my journals. A fall landscape painting once belonging to Rock’s grandmother. The rocker my mother gave me right after my first son was born. And, of course, all the pictures. Albums, frames, and boxes of photographs, each one telling a story of who we once were.

As I pack up, sell, donate, and throw away our stuff, I find myself pondering the past. Often it is shimmering in preciousness. Photos whisper memories. Objects tell of journeys. Drawers tumble out used and torn remembrances. A move forces a look back while envisioning the future. The present is a dusty reminder of the love these walls still hold as boxes begin to gather what we will bring to our new home. We let go. We breathe. We walk toward a future that isn’t quite in focus yet. Our stuff will soon find its place, corners will quickly fill with new and old, and joy will dance in each room.

“Actually, this is just a place for my stuff, ya know? That’s all; a little place for my stuff. That’s all I want, that’s all you need in life, is a little place for your stuff, ya know?” – George Carlin

A job offer has presented us with a new opportunity for adventure. We will soon move our stuff from our hometown to a bigger city filled with rivers, arches, and Cardinals. It is both exciting and terrifying, but we welcome the journey. I hope to chronicle this odyssey as we stumble toward the future. Stay tuned.

To Honor Grandparents

On August 3, 1978, President Jimmy Carter signed a proclamation declaring the first Sunday after Labor Day to be National Grandparents’ Day, a day “to honor grandparents, to give grandparents an opportunity to show love for their children’s children, and to help children become aware of strength, information, and guidance older people can offer.”

When I was growing up, I only really knew one grandparent. My mom’s father died when she was a teenager. Both my dad’s father and my mom’s mother passed away before I was ten. My grandfather was a distant, shadowy figure whose interaction with us was limited and awkward, so when he died I don’t think I even thought to miss him.  Nana, my mom’s mother, lived with us off and on, so my memories of her are misty, like a powdery whiff of White Shoulders or the soft tinkle of Fur Elise on the piano. 

My dad’s mother lived a block away in a stately white house on Sunset Avenue. Grandma was a diminutive woman, with a crooked wig and a big purse. She was ornery and stubborn and held life-long grudges. There were always Archway cookies in the cupboard, little bottles of Coke in her icebox, and bacon frying in the kitchen. The toy box in the hall closet held antique WWI army men and metal trucks. She cursed the cats who ran away her beloved birds, and paid us a nickel to pick up the rotten apples that littered her back yard. My cousins and I would spend endless summer hours at her house, either in the basement playing school or hide and seek in her jumble of antiques, or sipping Kool-aide while cooling off on the green and pink clad furniture that graced her screened-in side porch. I still miss seeing her careen down the street in her mammoth car, glimpsing just a streak of gray peeking out over the steering wheel. That was my grandma, flinty with bits of racist comments thrown in for added flavor. She wasn’t cuddly. She wasn’t cozy. She was Ruth, and I loved her in spite of and because of all her quirks.

Our own children have many grandparents, each with his or her own bag of mixed up characteristics. None are the mythical versions. Some are crotchety. Others amiable. A few are missed in their grandchildren’s deepest dreams. Most, though, have had deep pockets full of hugs and stories and unconditional love. 

My husband and I became grandparents almost five years ago when a little curly headed girl instantaneously stole our hearts, and then a smily boy miraculously grabbed us once again over a year ago. We color Hello Kitty and dance to rock ’n roll and go on adventures. We listen to every story. We watch with sparkling amusement as they run around our home. We are mesmerized with each exquisite moment. I am CeCe and he is Popi, and our lives are immanently more joyful because of Lottie and Sam, and for that we are forever grateful.

And so, on this first Sunday after Labor Day, I acknowledge all grandparents: ones by blood, ones by luck, and others by honorary declaration. You are a gift, a presence, a precious memory for all the children in your lives.

Happy Grandparents’ Day.

Nobody can do for little children what grandparents can do. Grandparents sort of sprinkle stardust over the lives of little children.

— Alex Haley

Kids are hard – they drive you crazy and break your heart – whereas grandchildren make you feel great about life, and yourself, and your ability to love someone unconditionally, finally, after all these years.

— Anne Lamott, Some Assembly Required

Grandparents, like heroes, are as necessary to a child’s growth as vitamins.

— Joyce Allston