God bless the postman who brings the mail.
And bless the cowboys out on the trail.
Bless Mommy and bless Daddy who come each time I call.
God bless the folks I love, God bless us all.
Lyrics by Tom Murray, Music by Tony Burrello, 1953
I took a quiz once to define my priorities in life, listing the three possessions I would save if my house was on fire. The answer was the same then as it is now; family photos are numero uno on my list. And two and three as well, since I would lug through the flames as many albums as I could drag or throw. Now, in the digital age, our collective family history is conveniently stored on my hard drive and I imagine in my panic, I might heave my iMac out the window. It may seem like dramatic heroics to rescue mere two-dimensional images, but these visual reflections of the past not only warehouse and catalogue individual moments, but also activate and develop the negatives in my memory, bringing the people, places, and times surrounding those moments back to life, in vivid 3D Technicolor. Pictures tell stories. Pictures reveal secrets. Pictures frame truths. Irreplaceable homages to what has been and never will be again, they are priceless.
Not every moment is picture-perfect, yet collections from ordinary lives become extraordinary when viewed with the perspective of hindsight. One of my most beloved candid photos of Sydney, Steven took when she was about three. An extreme close-up, it’s cropped just above the eyes and below the lips. Her skin, so soft it beckons to be touched. Bangs cover her brows, and her beautiful blue eyes, featuring the recognizable shape of Down syndrome, gaze directly into the camera with an expression that’s both contemplative and serene. It’s a split second in time suspended like a bridge between then and now.
Another snapshot I adore is of all four kids, Steven and me from a Thanksgiving years ago. We’re on the couch, squeezed in tight, Sydney and Haley in jammies – barely more than babies, stacked on laps. We’d been laughing because the timer kept snapping the picture before Steven could make it back. Pure joy – that I can still feel – is contained in that photo. When we reminisce together, flipping through old photo albums, stories get embellished and laughter mixes with nostalgia. Each person asking “do you remember?” adds another perspective, pieces to the recollection, and in the re-telling, it is re-lived.
We just got home from our vacation and I’ve got loads of photos and memories . . . and laundry. Our second summer combining road trip with camping, we set out towing our 5th wheel RV to travel through eight states covering 2,500 miles. That, by any definition, is a lot of family togetherness. We headed southeast and visited Disney World, the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. Last year, we drove through nine states including Montana, South Dakota and Nebraska, touring Yellowstone National Park, Mount Rushmore and the Omaha Zoo. And next year, we’ll travel northwest, from Colorado to Arizona to Oregon, seeing the Grand Canyon, the Oregon coast and the Wallowa Mountains where my parents grew up. We wanted to give our girls memories filled with exposure to different people and places (plus, it’s cool to fill in the U.S. map on the side of our trailer.) Unplugging from our busy lives and hitting the road without looking back has been a remarkable adventure.
When I was a kid family vacations meant driving forever in our Chevy Impala station wagon to visit Grandma and Grandpa. Starting out in either the back seat or the ‘back-back’ that faced the opposite direction, my brother and sister and I would climb over the top, from seat to seat, ‘rough-housing’ and fighting. I don’t remember what my brother did to cause my dad to blow his top, but I do remember when Dad shouted, “Stephen! Sit down and . . . and . . . sit Down! We giggled behind his back then and tease him to his face now—it’s still funny 40 years later. I’m sure my parents were relieved when, as the day came to a close, the seats were folded down and we’d sleep on a pallet of blankets and pillows while Dad drove us safely through the night.
Now, my girls sit buckled securely into their seats. Old enough to occupy themselves, we enjoy long stretches of companionable silence; Haley watching a movie, Sydney listening to music, me reading or even sleeping. And my sweet husband, as the Dad, shoulders the burden of towing 11,000 lbs. through traffic, construction, mountain passes and severe weather. He drives us safely through the long days.
It’s certainly not always this harmonious. Boredom leads to crankiness, or worse, the whining that’s like fingernails on chalkboard. “Mah-ah-om! Sydney’s staring at me! Mah-ah-OM! Sydney touched me!!” And they get ornery. Once Haley refused to come after a rest stop, hiding on the playground. We walked to the truck. We got in the truck. Steven started the truck and even began to drive. I thought for sure that would scare her into action. Instead, as we passed, she gave us a saucy grin and a princess wave. Steven slammed it into park, “Oh, it’s on,” he said to me. Striding half of the 50 yards toward her in three steps, he yelled, “I’m in no mood for this. Get in the *bleepin’* car, now!”
I had my own meltdown when I discovered the girls had destroyed the back seat. Believing they ha cleaned up like I asked, I went ballistic when I found a Leapster, a Nintendo and an iPad, all out of their cases, lidless markers, pencil shavings mixed with crushed Cheez-its and sand, scattered playing cards, doll clothes, stuffed animals, CDs, half-eaten chicken nuggets, three sets of headphones with tangled cords, melted chocolate, torn pages from a coloring book and empty juice boxes all heaped in a massive pile. Steven waited patiently while I ranted, “Blah, blah, blah, irresponsible! Blah, blah, blah, unacceptable! Blah, blah, blah, *bleep-it*!”
But, this is what we signed up for by spending all of our time together; we learn to be better by being at our worst. We learn to love each other, no matter what, and not just in spite of our annoying peculiarities, but because of them. Our personalities rub up against and bounce off one another, creating our own unique family dynamic, as tempers are quick to flare. But forgiveness also comes quickly and rebounding, we’re back on track.
At the entrance to the Magic Kingdom in Disney World is a photo opportunity in front of an elaborate background that reads, “Let the Memories Begin!” We hugged in close, grinning with anticipation; a beautiful, happy little family. Steven, protectively surrounding us; masculine, good-looking; me, fitting snugly under his arm; nurturing, vibrant and animated; the girls, all long-legged innocence, emanating exuberance; Haley, sporting her Mickey ears and sunglasses, and Sydney with her coordinating floppy hat, clutching her snack. Click. Moment captured.
From that photo one might assume that we lived happily ever after; that we frolicked from ride to ride, ecstatic and delighted; that everyone’s expectations were met and our agenda flowing smoothly with no obstacles; that our every dream came true.
And one would be wrong.
A few uncontrollable impediments arose like brutal heat and humidity alternating with thunderstorms, lightening and torrential rains; crowds, rude and aggressive crowds; transportation logistics—getting from point A to point B, and points X, Y and Z on Disney’s massive property by foot, by bus, or by boat.
But something I should have seen coming threatened to derail our whole trip: None of this was Sydney’s idea of fun. For starters, we quickly learned she was anxious about almost everything: the anticipation of the unknown; darkness—even partial; anything that moved—even slightly; any fantasy or visual effect, including but not limited to 3D. Let’s just say “It’s A Small World” was panic attack by singing munchkins and the “Haunted Mansion,” well that was just a bad idea, period. Sydney’s low tolerance for extreme heat was apparent in her beet-red face. She was so tired walking mile after mile; she lagged miserably behind. The only thing that appealed to her was the myriad of food carts and snack shacks—she begged to stop at every one. That was the first day.
So, we did what we always do—we adapted. I gave more thought to my precious girl’s needs and armed her with 1) better shoes; 2) a hat and a spray fan; 3) a snack she could carry with her; and 4) a flashlight. The next day, with renewed hope, we went back. And the next day and the next. We finished our four days at Disney by trading off riding the big rides with Haley and coaxing Sydney into attractions we knew she would enjoy. “I’m overcoming my fear,” she repeated.
Then finally, in Hollywood Studios, a huge moving stage show wheeled across our path, singers and dancers exploding in celebration: Disney Channel ROCKS! On the front row, singing with gusto and dancing with the cast, she had the moves like Jagger. Camera in hand to record her bliss, I felt a catch in my throat and the relief that for a moment, her dreams could also come true.
Meanwhile, Haley turned out to be a rollercoaster baby. She’d ride once with Steven then again with me, coming off the ride, talking in a breathless gush of exhilaration. She was in her element; non-stop action and intense stimulation. She loved every minute and nothing scared her (well, as I said, the Haunted Mansion: baaaad idea for everyone).
Her excitement was contagious and she and Steven convinced Sydney to ride Splash Mountain on our last day. With flashlight in hand, holding onto her dad, she talked herself through it; “I’m overcoming my fear. I’m overcoming my fear.” In the last steep drop, water spraying everywhere, mouth opened wide in joyful laugh, her triumph was captured in the action photo taken from above. The rest of the day we talked about how she ‘overcame her fear.’ It was more than fun; it was a life lesson she will never forget.
The relaxation of the beach contrasted nicely with the busyness of Orlando. Thunderstorms followed us, but when the clouds parted, it was glorious. The girls had never seen the ocean and the magic of their first time lived up to our expectations. In the early evening the beach stretched long toward the water and the sun hovered on the horizon. Haley plunged in to chase waves while Sydney held back and played where the water lapped at the shore. In peaceful reverie, I watched; Steven teaching Haley how to boogie board, holding on until just before the swell broke and then guiding her onto the crest. “Mommy! I caught my first wave!” she yelled. And Sydney, solitary, contented with exploring the water her own way, lying on her belly and letting the surf wash over her.
My girls are making their own childhood memories right now, I realized. How will they remember this? What moments will they choose to extract and treasure? I wondered if Haley will someday say, ‘I remember when my Dad would throw me into the waves. It was amazing!’ Will she remember that she was a little scared and that each time she scrambled to get back to him, reaching for him with a desperate outstretched hand? I hope that she will remember that he was always there for her, every time.
My childhood memories drop like cardboard slides into a carousel, projecting on the screen of my mind: at the beach in Virginia; my mother, Jackie Kennedy scarf tied under her chin, blowing in the breeze, cat-eyed sunglasses adorning her young, radiant face, holding a baby on her hip; my brother and I, very young, arms wrapped around her legs, smiling sweetly for the camera. I can smell the salt air and feel the boardwalk under my bare feet.
I see my Dad, in the woods of Canada, young and virile, standing like Paul Bunyon by a small log cabin he’d built just for us, axe in hand; the same baby sister—a tow-headed toddler—standing in the door frame, looking up at him in adoration.
I remember my mother taking us on a nature walk through the woods, teaching us the names of the wildflowers. It began to rain lightly and she made a canopy in the lower branches of a beautiful old tree with a handmade quilt. I can hear the hush in the forest and the gentle sound of the rain.
And many camping trips; sleeping in tents, cooking and roasting marshmallows over the fire; before bed, listening to my father play his guitar and sing in his mellow tenor, a lilting lullaby, “God bless the postman, who brings the mail . . .” I close my eyes and hear him singing. Tears well in my eyes; the emotion is instant.
These vignettes are so deeply etched, I think sometimes my memory of them and the old, fading photos are intertwined and I’m not sure what is real and what is in my mind. But I don’t think it really matters. My life is a photo mosaic. A luminously textured composition of highlights and shadows that form a panoramic vision, awash with hues and tones and shades of color; indescribably beautiful as a whole, yet, when zooming in closer, an iridescently cascading depth of embedded impressions is exposed, a virtual kaleidoscope of people and places and times; photos within photos within photos superimposed and imprinted with seconds, years, decades; a lifetime of memories. Backlit by its own ambient light, the sum of my existence radiates brilliance almost too magnificent to take in. I’m overcome by a gratitude that reaches the deepest recesses of my being.
At the end of our journey, after a long day of driving, we made our last fuel stop. 2,400 miles in, we were less than 2 hours from home. Unfolding stiff legs and piling out of the truck, the girls and I limped inside for the last bathroom break. After pumping gas Steven found us scanning the cold case for the last drinks we’d buy. The melancholy I was feeling lifted when I saw him tickle Haley, tease Sydney then turn and do his ‘goofy’ walk to the register—a sort of skipping, hopping caricature he often pantomimes that never fails to make us laugh. Vacation was over, but the memories were mine for the keeping. After paying he led the way out and the girls followed, single file. “Let’s go home, ladies,” he tossed over his shoulder. Haley, right behind him, repeated in her little voice, “Let’s go home, ladies.” Then Sydney chimed in, “Let’s go home, ladies.” And bringing up the rear, I added, “Yeah, let’s go home.”