Last month, to celebrate her wedding anniversary, my mom looked through her wedding album. As my own 15th wedding anniversary approaches, I was reminded that my wedding photos are still in a cardboard box in the attic. I can’t remember when I last looked through them. My seven year old daughter has never seen them.
When I was a child, looking at old photos was an exciting event – whether looking through the two photo albums that spanned my preschool years, or munching on popcorn while looking at the many slides that my father took – especially of my parents’ cross country honeymoon roadtrip! Each photo was sorted into its proper place in its albums or carousel, and together they formed a comfortingly familiar narrative.
And so, on a mission to create this narrative for my daughter, I braved the wilds of the attic. Unfortunately, I did not remember that I had long ago put the wedding photos in their own box within a box, helpfully labelled “wedding photos.” So I sorted through envelope after random envelope of photos. And along the way, I found plenty of photos that were decidedly not from the era I was looking for.
I have deactivated my Facebook account, but nonetheless, I set aside a few photos that might be fun for “Throwback Thursday” – some friends at a college Christmas party, my sister preparing stuffed tomatoes in the sweltering railroad kitchen of one of my many not!air-conditioned college apartments, a friend in the prom dress she had made herself… and I stuffed a few photos back in the box, sorry I had seen them: an ex-boyfriend playing guitar while my kitten batted at the guitar strings, myself looking longingly over the edge of a cliff as my first husband smiled widely at the camera on our wedding day, my father looking angrily away from my thoughtfully teary eyed mother sitting beside him at my grandmother’s dining room table… Why did I keep those?
I used to feel like I had the obligation to keep every photo – that the mere fact of me having documented an event bestowed historical significance, and I had the archivist’s duty to maintain this tangible imprint of memory. Now I’m not so sure. Maybe “Throwback Thursday” is a Facebook holiday for people who don’t have an entire decade of their life that was chewed up by mental illness and bad decision making. Maybe us folks who have been tormented by demons of depression or anxiety or bipolar disorder or addiction etc etc should be allowed, on reflection, to toss away those old photographs without guilt feelings.
Naturally I want to toss every photo of me holding a cigarette before my daughter finds them. But mostly I am wanting to get rid of photos for myself. The people in the photos might look happy or hopeful, but each one carries a narrative that only I (and a handful of others) know – not just of my own failed first marriage, but the failed marriages of friends, of abuse and betrayal, of desperate self-deception, of fear and poverty, of broken confidences, of unrequited romantic obsession… all hidden behind those hopeful smiles. These photos lie to everyone but me – and perhaps to me as well. And then there are the other photos that seem to speak the truth all too clearly, in the emotional dissonance between people made plain on their faces or in their postures. This hindsight is painful – what is plain to me now was not plain enough to me then to save myself and others from participating in their own emotional dismembering.
Re-membering – I don’t simply want to stitch together old memories haphazardly, leaving me with rotting bits reanimated – I do not want to let my fear of death (or forgetting) motivate me as it did Shelley’s Frankenstein. I crave resurrection – a new body, redeemed from sin for new life in Christ. Only God can re-member me correctly. Only God knows who I was and who I am, and only God knows the hearts of those I traveled with.
Even as my chronic anxiety has drawn my focus to a future of worst case scenarios, my depression has trapped me in a false past – a past of exaggerated wrongs and slights and failures, relived like a bad dream that I cannot wake from. Now, after fifteen years of increasing mental health and increasingly happy marriage, these old photos seem like demonic messengers, “assisting” me in returning to my mindset at the time I snapped each photograph. Next time I go into those old photo boxes, I am taking a trash bin with me – and a good friend.