The magic camera

It had been a long week since his mother passed. He was about finished at the house, he had pulled out what was going to auction and what was to be kept in the family. Only a few boxes remained, all the photographs of a lifetime, gathered in dusty cardboard containers. During his last visit, just last month, he had found his mother going through these boxes. He sat beside her at the dining room table, albums scattered all across in front of her. She was flipping through the pages slowly, and every so often, a hand would slide across a page containing pictures of deceased relatives.

She was always the sentimental one in the family. She would tell stories about her childhood to he and his brother to “keep these memories alive”, she’d say. She grew up dirt poor and they didn’t have a camera in the family when she was a little girl growing up in the Depression. Only one photo of her as a child exists, then no more until the 1950s and she and her sisters posed before going “into town” dressed up with the latest hairstyles. The red lipstick looking unnaturally dark in the black-and-white photo. To the best of his knowledge, that was the only picture of her and her sisters together all at the same time.

In the 1970s, all the rage was the Polaroid camera. Instant photos from the “magic” camera, as she used to call it to him. He was in grade school at this time so it seemed completely reasonable to him that the camera was, indeed, magic. Because of the magic camera, there were literally hundreds of pictures, suddenly, in the albums. The scarcity of photos from earlier days gave way to the candid shots that now filled album after album. And being the 70s, all the bad fashion and hairstyles were readily available to ponder and laugh at.

The Polaroid being the high tech precursor to today’s digital devices, it allowed his family to record and review all the moments they shared, with good or bad fashion choices. And it was his mother who kept them. When he visited last month, she would tell stories about some of them or stories that had been triggered by the image of the person in them. Many of those stories concerned his dead brother. She wondered aloud if she had been a good mother to him. Maybe if she had been better, his brother wouldn’t have killed himself.

He could hate his brother at these moments. But he never let on to his mother, only thing he could do was assure her that his brother had loved her but some people are broken in ways that can’t be fixed. She would turn the page of the album, not responding to his assurances. She commented on the quality of the photos now. “They’ve faded out so much, you can’t tell what some of them are anymore. I always told your father I wished we had never gotten one of those Polaroid things. Look at this one,” she said, pointing to a faded picture of him as a baby on a swing with his brother holding him. For some reason, they both had Indian headdresses on.

He did notice that the pictures were very faded, even though they had been kept in an album for decades, out of sunlight, safely tucked away in a closet. “These things are just about gone,” she lamented, “Just like my mind is lately. I’m getting to where I can’t remember people’s names anymore.” He tried to comfort her but she was lost in the album again. He just sat with her, quietly listening as she reminisced and recounted tales of relatives he no longer remembered.

And now he sat on the floor of the big, empty house, boxes in front of him. For some reason, he wanted to go through those same albums she’d gone through last month. He thought about picking out some good pictures that hadn’t faded too badly and having them put on a DVD for posterity. He pulled the flaps of the box open and pulled out the top album. He was confused, however, as page after page were filled with completely white photos, neatly organized behind the sticky plastic film meant to hold them in place.

He threw that one aside and pulled out another…and another…all filled with empty white photos. Any hint of images were completely gone. The other boxes contained the same result. It was as if… Then it hit him, the truth of it. There was no “magic camera”. All these albums had been her memories.

She was the magic.

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