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The Script

A_Box_of_PhotographsV10_050721Paula Nelson
00:00 / 16:30

I remember…a box…dog-eared, the size of a shoe box, but twice as wide, with little pink and red flowers and green leaves. Mom kept it under her bed, away from sticky fingers and curious eyes. Once my brother, sister and I discovered it, it was like finding buried treasure. We’d shuffle through the black and white photographs – the double exposures and out-of- focus figures. The photos held memories, but they were memories that without that physical proof…wouldn’t be part of my life at all. Many of those little squares are the only testament to parts of my life that I don’t really remember.


The photographs in that box were the records of our family. They were evidence of who we were, fragments of our story.


My mother loved family photographs. She always had a camera and recorded our birthdays, our Sunday afternoon road trips, macaroni and clay sculptures we made in school. She had a Brownie Hawkeye, box-like, kind of rectangular, and later a slim Kodak 110mm with a flash cube snapped to the top corner. Every time a picture was made, the cube rotated to the left, making a popping sound as it threw a tiny bit of light on whatever she was photographing.


Black and white film was Mom’s go to.  The photographs were printed on square thin paper with scalloped edges, the date printed along the side. Color film came later, but it was more expensive and as a single mother and sole provider for our family, there wasn’t a lot of money to spend on film, so mom stuck with black and white for years.


She also had each of us photographed professionally from about the time we were 1 to maybe 5 years old and then well beyond that for the three of us kids, together. She said she wanted us to be able to look back and see who we were. The early ones, in black and white, are so sweet. There’s one of my brother with a crew cut, he’s lying on his stomach in this little cardigan, his drool captured mid-drip. And one of my sister, wearing these little white leather shoes, her hair’s bobbed in these beautiful dark curls.

Mom worked for the local photographer, John Trumble at Trumble Photography. Before color was in wide use and affordable, the photos were printed in brown tone and hand colored. That’s what mom did. She would add tiny spots of color in the eyes, on the lips and in some details of the clothing.  She used an airbrush for larger parts and a small soft bristle brush for the details. She also assisted during photo shoots; she made sure every child’s hair was combed and styled on school picture days. Those yearly photos were records of braces and crooked smiles, of too big hair bows and crazy plaid and patterned clothing.


I recalled one personal photograph in particular. It’s a photo of me, I think I was probably around 5, and I was standing next to my dad. He was squatted down in the front yard holding a puppy. It’s the only photograph that I have ever seen that shows me with my father. The only physical proof that he was ever there when I was really young.


My father left us when I was only five. My sister was seven and my brother barely a year old. The picture of my dad and me was taken the day he arrived with that small, barking and yelping ball of fur. As I stood on the porch with him, he bent down to whisper a name in my ear.  “His name is Dandy,” he said. I was the only one he shared the name with. My brother and sister were encouraged to guess the name. Of course, they’d never guess it, and I finally told them through a big smile. Dandy was a great dog and a member of our family for decades to come, and in many more photos as we grew older.


That’s how I remember the photograph, but it turns out it’s not just a picture of my dad and me; my sister and brother are there too. When I was thinking about that photograph, there was a moment when I just wasn’t sure, “Was that really just me, or was that all of us together?” But then I saw it so clearly in my mind, I saw a photo of my dad and me – just the two of us – and it made sense, because of the clear memory of the whisper in my ear.  I just knew it was real.


I’ve been a visual person all my life. My mother taught us to “see” the world and everything around us. To see the small details, the nuance, the beauty...things that others often overlook. That’s been reinforced over a long career in visual journalism. Thirty years surrounded by what I love – photographs. That’s how I’ve spent my career, lived my life and what I’m passing on to my son. 


I’ve found photographs that have helped me to build memories that have been forgotten or never known. I have photos of mom as a child; a couple of photographs of mom and dad together – rare, since my parents were only married for a short time. I’ve found the photographs from their wedding day and from a baby shower for my sister. All parts of our family story.


When I was looking through our old black and white negatives, I found the ones that formed that memory of my dad bringing us our new puppy. I realized that so much emotion is connected to that day and to that photo – even after what…more than 50 years.


It’s strange how your memory works…I had remembered a photograph of my dad squatting down in the front yard, holding the puppy next to me, but what the negatives reveal, the truth of that day, is that it was my dad, the puppy and the three of us – my brother, sister and me. Had I transformed that photograph to the truth that I had wanted it to be? Just my dad and me?  There was another frame of my mother standing next to dad, with my brother and me. I’d never seen it before. And when I did, I started to cry. I wondered why?


When I asked my brother and sister if they had any memory of that day or of those two photos. My brother said he was too young to remember but that if you didn’t know the story, you’d think it was just a regular family picture. And my sister, who always remembers everything – didn’t remember that day at all. When she looked at the photo with mom, she said that we all seemed so stoic on what might have otherwise been a happy day…new puppy and all.


My brother, sister and I dealt with my father’s absence in very different ways. Ways that have continued to influence our adult lives even now.  I can’t look at that photograph without crying. Is it because of what I thought might have been had my father been present in our lives? Was it because I’ve hardly ever seen my parents together? What I’ve come to… is the pain and the loneliness that my mother must have been feeling at that very moment, standing there next to my father who had left her with three small children, and so soon after her own father had died so suddenly. How from that moment forward, she would live a life of self-sacrifice and stoicism; fighting for child support payments; working to the point of exhaustion; of routinely going without so that her children could have what they needed; of trying to stretch paychecks well beyond what was possible; of all the sadness and moments of despair when she dropped to her knees and prayed for help. 


Musical Pause


There‘s no reason to believe that our lives would have been better had my father stayed. And in fact, we’re all grateful to have grown up in a household – where it was tough at times – but always filled with laughter. I think my dad had moments of regret – regret that he’d left his children and a woman that he’d loved.  It’s what I see in his face in that same photograph.


For me, it’s all there... in that moment. A complicated story woven into a single photograph.


Musical transition


There are photographs that remind me of our lives as we grew up in that single parent home. Photographs that I treasure because of the stories they tell. There’s a photo that I made of my grandmother, it’s really just a snapshot, but it’s special to our whole family, most of all to Mom who keeps the original negative in her lock box at the bank. A lock box, (I mean think about it) where you keep your most valued possessions – jewelry, land deeds, insurance policies –for Mom, it holds a photo of her mother, our grandmother.


The three of us kids spent a lot of time with my grandmother. We probably spent more time with her when we were young, than mom, really. It seemed as though mom was always working…and she was.


Grandma only had a third-grade education – but I remember her sitting at the corner of the table doing crossword puzzles for hours. She wore the pattern right off the plastic tablecloth where she sat. She’d have a cup of coffee, it was really just a little coffee, a lot more milk and a lot of sugar!  She’d nurse that cup all day long.


She went to bed early and she was up before the sun. She was so petite that mom had to have her dresses made. Mom would choose fabrics in beautiful small, printed flower patterns of grandma’s favorite colors. A different flowery fabric for the apron. On the right side, just down from the waistline, was a terry cloth towel to catch the spills when she was working in the kitchen.


Grandma wore thick brown opaque stockings that were tied tightly just above her knee with an old rag. I remember her reaching down to retie the knot once they’d loosened during the day. She wore old navy tennis shoes that formed to her bunions. She always seemed to have a sweater on, her sleeves stuffed with crumpled Kleenex. Mom does that now.


We’d get off the school bus to the smell of homemade donuts – frosted or jelly-filled –with Grandma’s homemade jam. She made fresh bread and pies. And she was so strong, she’d give you this big bear hug and squeeze...and she wouldn’t let go until she wanted to let go. Her kisses were wet and when she laughed, her cheeks would wrinkle up to hide her eyes.


That photo that I made of Grandma a long time ago ­– the one that mom keeps in her lock box. For my family – all of us, it’s a living and breathing memory, every little detail of that picture represents a story - something that we’ve shared together and that we remember even now. She’s standing there just like she always did, leaning back, her shoulders at a crooked tilt. She’s wearing a flowered hat, a flowered dress, a mismatched stained apron, those brown stockings, and navy tennis shoes. Her expression is classic Grandma – a bit of a wry smile, her eyes disappearing into her cheeks. It’s exactly how we all remember her. She loved Red River Valley, by Gene Autry. I can almost hear her singing just as she always did, high-pitched and off key…


Red River Valley by Gene Autry


From this valley they say you are goin’

I will miss your bright eyes and sweet smile

For they say you are takin’ the sunshine

That has brightened our pathway the while



The importance of family photos and knowing their stories was crystalized for me by the Disney movie CoCo. Mom and Harry and I really love that movie, and we’ve watched it together more than once. There’s a scene in the movie of an old man in the land of the dead, where Miguel’s searching for his great, great grandfather. The only clue he has is an old photo, but his face has been torn from the print. When the old man they’re visiting disappears, Miguel wants to understand why. He’s told that the old man has been forgotten. That when there’s no one left in the living world that remembers you…you disappear.  That our memories, have to be passed down by those who knew us in life, in the stories they tell about us. The kinds of stories that are captured in photographs.


Mom kept making family photographs. Early color film – that color that was almost surreal, overly saturated, kind of glowy… Those pictures show us dressed in our Easter best before Sunday School, the black eyes and bruises that are a testament to childhood, holiday celebrations and birthdays. 


My sister remembers so much more of our childhood than I do, she was older when dad left.  My memories have been made by seeing our family pictures. And when we come together now and take the photos out – many still in that flowered cardboard box – we relive their stories, the time we shared when we lived in the same house, when we spent hot summer days playing in the yard, ate homemade grape popsicles that melted so quickly under the sun that streams of purple ran down our chins, when we took our favorite round metal saucer to the neighbor’s hill to sled for hours, freezing our toes to beyond cold, running home to drink Grandma’s special hot cocoa made from bittersweet chocolate powder and granulated sugar.




I’m passing on my own family history through the photographs and the stories that connect them. The importance of that to me is clear. Everyone deserves to be remembered. Reliving moments of joy, good things and vital to living our lives with purpose.


I tell my son Harry stories connected to the photographs of his childhood all the time, trying to imprint them in a more permanent way. And because we have photos, he can see himself and hear the stories of his childhood.


Part of creating that little human being of mine has been to teach him the importance of family. When I chose to become a parent, a single parent, I drew strength from the example that my mother had set raising three loving, strong human beings. But I also struggled with the idea of being Harry’s only parent, growing up as I had without my father. And I think about how it might influence him, good and bad.


Harry knows his family – aunts and uncles, lots of cousins and his grandmother, but I want him to know the story of our family through all the photographs that we cherish.  And because photography has been such a big part of our lives together, I hope to pass on the love of making and preserving our own family photos.


We have a rotating digital frame in our living room. The photos on it go back to our beginnings, Harry’s, and mine. When I glance over and see an image, feel the smile come across my face, I call Harry over to take a look and if he doesn’t remember it, I tell him it’s story. He’ll usually ask a couple of questions and then he’ll run off to pick up where he left off playing.


I ask Harry to come and see and talk about the photos because they’re really just imperfect records. And sometimes…even memories about the photos are imperfect, like that photo with my dad and the puppy. But if we talk about the story of the photo – the day, the emotions, and the people – maybe he’ll remember those things years from now.


In digging out my own family photographs: the square negatives; completely under and over exposed color slides and those black and white, scalloped edged prints, I’ve filled in some blank spaces in my life. And it’s why I believe in recording these stories, as well as curating and saving photos for my son. Photographs remain after we’re gone. But they are so much more than what’s fixed to paper – and if we record our stories, too – the complete truth is a little less elusive.

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