Picture This…

By Alex Cohen

Over five years ago I wanted to create the perfect present for my husband for our 20th wedding anniversary. Someone introduced me to Michael and his team, who specialize in Art Design and create unique gifts “by invitation only.” Michael came to my house with his team and collected all my loose photos, photos albums and framed pictures that I had been storing for years. He scanned every single one of them and when they were done, I had more than 100,000 pictures! He could not believe how many I had and how organized they actually were. What can I say, I’m a memory keeper… you will find hundreds of framed pictures all over our homes in every room. I can’t get enough of those “moments in time.”

I think about how sad it is that our children have no idea what an actual photo album was meant to be. It was not a document on a phone or computer, but a tangible personal account of our memories. It was something you could grab and sit with to experience things again or just see how people lived before us. These days pictures and memories remain in the cloud pushed far back by the next “in the moment” picture, never to see a physical frame or photo album for all to share. What happens to these photos and memories? Does anyone ever get to see them and experience what others saw through their own lens? Or do they just die along with the phone and computer never to be shared and never to become a part of their history for their children and their children’s children? I beg my kids to send me pictures they take of us and themselves, so I can keep them in my albums or frames; it’s the only way for me to enjoy those memories.

Pictures tell a story of how our parents and their parents lived; it’s like a sneak peek of who they were before we came along, and what made them who they are today. When I look at the pictures of my parents with their parents, I see how they spent their time together, at home, eating, drinking, playing dominos, swimming in the ocean, laughing and joking around. Now in their 80s, I see how they have slowed down and are not as agile as they used to be. But knowing they enjoyed their life makes me smile. They were more than my parents and grandparents— they were fun people who enjoyed each other’s company and knew how to party.

Pictures tell a story of how we came to be. I look at pictures of myself as a baby and think, I can’t believe I was ever that young. Then I see how growing up, I went through all these awkward stages, like my Dorothy Hamill giant red glasses, my scrunchie side ponytail, my old nose and crooked teeth, I think to myself, who the hell would have ever dated me? But I have photographic proof that some very handsome boys did… I see the photos of my past boyfriends and the love I felt for them is visible and I am taken back to that “moment in time.” As an adult, I’ve forgotten all the fun I had and all the adventures I set off on when I was younger and had no responsibilities or fears, and I realize that I did way more than I remember.

How many memories do we forget because we are too busy looking ahead? How often do you actually think about those moments that formed who you are today? I see pictures of old friends and family members who have since passed and remember their influence on me, good and bad. Those are the people and experiences that formed my path forward to the present. I remember old relationships and getting my heart broken, but I also remember the love we had for each other at the time; it’s been quite the journey.

The first and oldest picture I came across was of my father as a child, he was probably around four years old. I see so much of myself in him at this age—we have the same eyes and the same nose. He grew up poor, but you wouldn’t know it from this picture, he could be any child all dressed up in his Sunday best. The next pictures are of him as a young man in the Korean War out in the war zone; he couldn’t have been more than 18 years old. Some are of him alone posing with a cigarette in his mouth (he was so badass!) and some are of him with his buddies. I wonder whatever happened to them, did they survive the war, and are they still alive? The pictures are black and white, and some are torn and tattered, but in all, you can see the pride in his eyes of serving his country.

Then there were pictures of my mother as a young girl photographed with her younger sister, dressed so prim and proper. I remember my mother telling me how mischievous they both were—one time my mother hung her little sister over the toilet for biting her…

Then came the pictures of my parents’ wedding, you can tell my dad had one too many, as his eyes were not fully open in some of the photos, but they looked so young, so happy and so hopeful for their future. They have been married more than 60 years and still get along. That says a lot in this day and age. What an example of love, a lot of patience, and respect they are in my life.

“First comes love, then comes marriage…” then came my sisters and me, one by one with three-plus years in between each other. The pictures went from my parents to our childhood, baptisms, birthdays, graduations, all special events. There were no cell phones so taking a picture those days required a lot more than point and shoot; you needed to own an actual camera, fill it with actual film and then take it to the photo store and wait for it to be developed, which usually took a few days to a week—there was actual effort! Then once you got the pictures, half of them were out of focus and no good anyway. Some were missing heads and or legs, not to mention the negatives that came along with them, and those you stored away to collect dust forever. That’s why I also owned a Polaroid Camera, I needed instant gratification. But those eventually faded, and you were left with a dark blotch where someone used to be.

I smiled as I relived my childhood through the lens of my parent’s camera. It warmed my heart when I saw pictures of them as young parents enjoying their friends in Puerto Rico over the summers; playing with us and laughing without a care in the world. I guess it’s like Facebook— no one ever takes pictures of the bad stuff. There were tough times and I do remember those, but the good times most definitely outweighed the bad.

As I explore further I see my own life unfolding in my pictures, pictures of my one and only son, pictures of me as a very young mother and recalling how scared I was all the time hoping I was doing all I could to give my son the life he deserved. Then came my love, our courtship, travels, adventures and everything in between, always the look of love in our eyes. From our engagement party, the wedding and the honeymoon, that look was always there and still is today. We had our first baby girl, the first female born in the family after me, I don’t think her feet ever touched the ground. I chronicled her entire childhood in pictures while sharing them with others – via actual U.S. Postal Service! I photographed myself pregnant, not sure why as I could not believe how big I got, especially with my twins who came next. The camera loved them, and what a miracle and a novelty to have twins… Again, every move and every milestone was captured. Once they were all in school I had my baby girl. I took as many pictures as I could of her between the ballet classes, soccer games and after-school activities of my other children. I wish I had taken more but I cherish the ones I do have of my baby girl.

So many feelings come back when you venture into the past, the pain of reliving breakups, deaths, moves, lost friendships and lost youth. One thing I have come away with is that I have lived quite a life, I have traveled the world, I have loved deeply and truly, I have struggled, I have suffered but I have come out the other end just fine. These memories and this life we relive through our photographs are so important, not just to us but to others as well, “You can’t know who I am if you don’t know where I come from.”

I ask you all to take a moment and go through those pictures in your photo albums, your storage boxes, your computer, and your phone. I promise it will take you back and ground you wherever you are at this moment in your life. Knowing where you came from will help frame where you are headed. One day, I will make my children their own “Life Book” and share with them the memories I witnessed of their happy childhood and how much love there was and continues to be, even if they hate taking pictures with mommy and daddy now… My gift to them is proof that they also lived a happy and full life as children and all they learned and experienced (good or bad) during that time will help them going forward to become who they were meant to be.

Sometimes I spot my husband looking at the pictures I have all over the place and see him smile at what used to be but mostly cringe and say, “God we were young then.” I love the constant reminders of how far we have come, through so much and after all these years we can still “Picture This.”