One of the reasons we take so many photographs is that we want to remember. With our cameras, and now increasingly with our phones and other devices, we snap away furiously at our lives, desperate to capture every moment lest our mind’s eye allows them to slip away forever. This is especially true for today’s parents who document their children’s every new tooth, haircut and Halloween costume only to lose the images on a hard drive or CD somewhere. We’ve done this with our son Theo, especially when we’ve traveled overseas. When he was very young, we knew he probably wouldn’t remember these adventures when he was older, so we took plenty of pictures of him. We wanted him to know that he had been to other countries and experienced other cultures, that there is a whole world out there. In a way, we have been manipulating his memories. He may not remember being on the Great Wall of China, but knows he was there. He has proof.
Today, I sent my father proof that he has a grandson. I found an old silver frame and placed in it a recent school photograph of our 9-year old boy beaming away, one large gap where an upper tooth should be. It’s not that he hasn’t met Theo before. Dad lives in England, but we have traveled there several times with Theo, and the two of them have shared lovely times together. Theo may not remember some of the earlier trips because he was so young, but of course we have photos to remind him. What’s heartbreaking, though, is that Dad barely remembers Theo. For the last 12 years, his once razor-sharp brain (he was a well respected and prolifically published academic) has fallen pray to some sort of dementia, which with each year eats away at his memories and his clarity. At first, I refused to accept this deterioration and insisted that he see a specialist, but he refused. He seems happy, and he and his wife (he remarried 15 years ago) have their system of dealing with day-to-day life. So I have learned to accept the slow loss of my father and savor the precious moments when we talk on the phone, avoiding the past tense and discussing emotions and abstractions. I like to talk to him about Theo’s antics, and once reminded, he usually says, “Oh, yes. A lovely lad. We get on well, the two of us, don’t we?” And today I am hoping that when he gazes at the photograph, maybe one small memory of his grandson will be triggered.