The Family Portraitist

I am a curator of these scattered photos, of this epoch

You won’t believe the old photos I find while preparing to paint the living area and den, the ones tucked inside drawers of old desks and cabinets.

They make me wistful, these photos, and I am not a wistful man. Sad at times, especially that the Cubs didn’t perform better in the playoffs, or to learn a little every day how awful total strangers can be on social media.

Strangers are always better when you can look them squarely in the eye, give them a little nod, a dip of the shoulder, a half wave of the hand.

I was telling Dogpark Gary the other day how, at an intersection near the park, 75% of the drivers are patient and gracious as I step across the intersection with White Fang on murky mornings. The other 25% would just as soon run us down, back up, and run us down all over again.

Those are the people who spend all day on Twitter.

I find it fascinating, the rancor, the rush to judgment, the character assassination, the angst. To read these snippets – Twitter is nothing but incomplete thoughts – might be to assume that we are a deeply unhappy congregation right now.

But where would we put these emotions, if not on Twitter? We might lash out at those who actually matter to us, rather than total strangers.

In that sense, I like to think Twitter is a very good thing.

The way the French drank sugary Absinthe – to wallow for a moment in the madness, not the light — that’s the way we consume Twitter.

Flanagan is like the sharp-tongued girl you fell for in the fifth grade, afraid of nuthin’.

Of the 6,000 or so souls who follow me on Twitter, I like maybe one or two. There’s Gigi, the completely funny redhead, and Flanagan, the wise guy writer for the Atlantic, who is twice as funny and four times as smart as I’ll ever be. She’s like the sharp-tongued girl you fell for in the fifth grade, afraid of nuthin’.

I’ve proposed several times to Ms. Flanagan, on Twitter, which is the way to propose these days, and she has managed to shun my advances each time. Must be so difficult for her.

But she’s married, after all, as am I — to this house, to this wolf-dog, to my son Smartacus, who since getting his driver’s license a month ago, has turned into one of the great young errand runners. 

He gladly runs to the market for apple juice, or to the post office for stamps. There is not an errand Smartacus will not do, though we’ve had mixed results at the wine store.

He’s 17, looks 14, and if he has any form of false ID, I am unaware of it. I’d give him my license, but my photo looks like Nick Nolte’s booking shot, the one where he appears to have been beaten with a chain in a bar fight. No way would the clerk think it’s Smartacus.

But back to the old family photos I’m finding. As I prep to paint the inside of the house, I am ridding the place of clutter and the sort of riprap you cram into the backs of cabinets, hoping it will go away on its own.

For instance, I came across all the old checks Posh had kept, going back to 1912, just before the First World War.

Posh was a bit of a hoarder, to be honest. She kept past tax records for 30 years. She kept every bit of artwork the kids made in the second grade, which was considerable, because that’s pretty much all second-graders do: glue together turkeys, Easter bunnies, puffy little winter scenes with plops of cotton.

Now it is up to me to edit it.

Were my late wife still around, this would be a humongous negotiation, comparable to the Treaty of Paris. It would take years. And there would be compromise and frustration, and items tucked back into drawers, where in a decade, I’d need to go through them again: old keys, remote controls from 1979, lots of tarnished serving spoons that belonged to someone’s grandma.

I put the treasures aside, then slam dunk almost all of it, happy to create a tidy home again.

But the photos…damn these photos.

The photos date to the time when you shot on film and processed everything you shot, and Posh was a sucker for the two-fer sales Fotomat used to have, where you got doubles of everything – the bad ones, the great ones, and everything in between.

So now, there are thousands of photos. We’d been through them before my son’s service, then through them again when Posh died, looking for defining smiles to post on cardboard displays in the church.

When the flurry (and fury) of that settled down, we never got back to sorting the photos into a manageable collection.

So that’s what I’m doing now, on these autumn afternoons, when I should be painting. The new flooring arrives in a week, so there’s little time to waste.

Yet, here I’ve become the family portraitist, and if I’m ruthless in tossing out old place mats and ornaments I find tucked away, I am a curator of these many photos, of this epoch. I mean, the copies of the old Christmas cards alone….

Because, lord, we had some gorgeous kids. Posh and I had a somewhat brittle relationship, but the litter we produced? And the smiles? And the freckles?

Jeez, just look at that pumpkin patch. Like moonbeams shining up through the Earth.

Fortunately, I am not a wistful man.

Good thing, huh?

Happy Hour Hike coming soon. Please see Monday’s Newsletter for details on how to sign up.

17 thoughts on “The Family Portraitist

  1. Damn you, Chris. I got nothing funny to say here. I can’t get the lump out of my throat. Beautiful and touching. Thank you for sharing these precious memories and your love for your wonderful family. You are a treasure.

  2. Oh my. These boxes of photos will keep you on the floor sorting for months as you smile, cry and go back for just a moment. When we moved out of our family home I had the same job to do. I let the packing go as I reminisced of each photo. I ended up only tossing the Blurry and bad pics and brought them all with us across country right next to all the photos my deceased parents had. Ugh. One day I might be house bound and will enjoy them once again. I’ve decide my kids can go through them when I’m gone .
    Good luck with all your pics and memories.

  3. Beautifully described and touching. I can identify, as I am doing exactly the same thing with thousands of photos from the same era. Sentimental soul that I am, it feels like a wound every time I toss a photo, but I think we both know that the real memories are already engraved on our hearts. Thank you for bringing us along on your journey, Chris, as always.

  4. Kids today won’t have these priceless hard copy photos to pore through. Their loss. Even the beaten up out of focus ones we oldsters find are treasures. Especially those in fact. Part of the charm. We’re not looking for Ansel Adams masterpieces buried in our cabinets and drawers. We’re looking for memories. And we find them. For kids today it’ll all be on their computers or phones. In high definition. Great but not the same somehow. Have fun and take your time going through them, Chris.

  5. A friend once called me nostalgic, I think of myself as sentimental. Nostalgic means you long for a previous time to return, I think sentimental is a gentle smile remembering happy times.

  6. I say, ‘O accursed yellowing memories’;sometimes they play on one’s heartstrings gently, like a Celtic harp; other times like a jarring Hendrix solo. But we wouldn’t trade them for anything, not even a cleaned out drawer.

  7. Chris, perhaps now is the time to have an adult “photo” meeting with those two beautiful daughters along with Smarticus (almost an adult), and let them have their pick of pics now. Unfortunately, in some families, after we’ve checked out, these cartons of memories are just tossed! Almost through “Lavender in your Lemonade”, and looking forward to your next one. Thanks.

  8. Most of us have done this, especially if we are of a certain age. We are recorders, taping, picting, writing time. The visual bandwidth is more than one thousand times the auditory bandwidth, and speed seems to be everything in these firehosed internet times. Yet what about all the pictures not taken, the myriad tumultuous, luminous secret moments, the movies, chemistry, in the mind ? They are the most affecting and powerful. Photos are like ghosts: seen, remembered, but almost not believed. Like old movies. But memories dwarf the photo record, and you see and verbally record them so pungently and beautifully. Thanks for the gallery, Chris. Don’t keep too many. But you will. And then…paint up a storm; which many of us have also done. If only walls could talk, would they speak of layers, or eras ?

  9. I think I might have sent you this once before, but it’s so fitting here and now:
    “Time it was oh, what a time it was
    A time of innocence
    A time of confidences
    Long ago it must be
    I have a photograph
    Preserve your memories
    They’re all that’s left you.
    (Paul Simon – Bookends)

  10. I am currently going through boxes of photos from my sons childhoods (they are now 39 & 42) These are the duplicates and “bad” photos that didn’t make it into the photo albums. I’ve decided to separate the “good” ones into two piles…one for each son. They will each be getting a big envelope full of loose photos at Christmas this year. The bad photos are going into my shredder with the negatives with my eyes averted. I too have found this task to be very emotional as I realize how much time has passed and how many life events I had forgotten. But that’s why we take pictures. I am now in charge of making photo albums online with digital photos for my grandchildren that are printed in handy 8 inch x 8 inch volumes. The grandkids love looking through the little albums I produce with Shutterfly.

    But then there is the problem of the 20 photo albums with the “good” photos. These albums have a sticky page with a clear vinyl sheet over the page. Very cutting age in their day. They have started getting discolored and it’s almost impossible to remove the photos from the albums. What to do ? I’ve been told that I should scan them to my computer. That sounds like a herculean and endless task. Maybe I can do that during the next pandemic? And let’s not forget the 1000 slides that have to be sorted and scanned !

  11. Your column brought tears to my eyes. It is wonderful that you get to relive those happy memories of your beautiful family. We lost almost all of our children’s photos in a fire. My first grandchild was born six months after the fire. I must have ten thousand photos on my phone, of our three grandchildren. If the cloud ever fails, I will be in tears, again. Thank you.

  12. Oh my goodness, you did it again…made me laugh, made me cry. I’m exhausted! Read this early this morning and I thought about it all day. You do have beautiful kids, and so do I. And so do all of us in our age group. They are the best of us, and the old photographs prove it. I loved looking through my grandmothers’s black and white curly edged photos from the 1920’s and ‘30’s. Was so glad I had some pictures from the ‘60’s and ‘70’s to share with my siblings when my mom passed last year. Digital images don’t have the same sentimentality. (is that a word?) Anyhow, thanks for sharing. I loved the picture of your sweet boy in the clown costume. I think we all have one like that in our collections!

  13. Wait till you have to go through digital photos! An average memory card can hold over a thousand photos. This usually resulted in taking the same photo about a half dozen times and trying to pick out the best one but keeping them all! LOL

  14. Oh these photos are precious! Kodachromes of joy. It’s like each one is a time portal and takes you back to that moment. I used to develop scads of pictures at Wolf Camera and toss them into photo albums. Still got them. My vote is don’t toss them. I bet your girls could have them scanned/digitized somewhere (Costco I think.) Good luck with the painting.

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