Lessons from the photo box
Here’s something you should do if you haven’t done so in a while: visit your mother and father and get out the old photo box.
Surely you have one. Ours is in my parents’ hall closet. It’s in a sturdy old Pabst Blue Ribbon beer case.
Lucky for me, I needed some photos for a humor speech I am giving about growing up in the ‘70s and I had a reason to go through the old photos.
As my mother and I dug through the box, I came across a black-and-white photo of a little girl. She’s holding a stuffed toy as she looks, suspiciously, into the lens of the camera.
That photo was taken 75 years ago, when the girl had her whole life before her. She didn’t know yet that one of her sisters would be struck with polio 12 years later, that her father would die at 49 just a month before her wedding, or that she’d have six healthy children and 17 grandchildren.
That was my mother’s picture. It was taken when she was 2.
I found my father’s black-and-white high-school graduation photo. He was trim and handsome — a thick head of hair. The photo had red coloring around his lips. When I asked my mother what it was, she explained.
When he was away in the Army, she used to kiss the photo. The red coloring was her lipstick.
My parents’ wedding photos are striking — both of them so young and attractive. She was 19 and he was 23. They had very little money, but it was 1956, a time of hope and optimism. They were intent on building a life together.
Many other photos from over the years show that they succeeded.
The old Polaroids, in their greenish, yellowy hue, documented so many instances in their lives: the new home built in 1964; Jingles, our beloved mutt dog born in 1972, getting a bath, which she hated; birthday parties, Christmas mornings and many other family events.
The newer photos document the thinning and graying hair, the high school and college graduations, the surprise party we threw for my father when he turned 50 and, eventually, the surprise retirement party.
These photos transport me right back to those moments I knew as a kid, both sad and happy: the cold January day in 1972 when my grandmother died and my father sobbed; the sound of my father driving around the neighborhood calling out for our dog the time she disappeared for three days; the Friday evenings sitting around the dinner table laughing with my sisters about everything and nothing at all.
It’s bittersweet to go through the old photos. They make me sad. They reflect the speed with which time is passing — the speed with which time is aging us all and, in the process, taking so many people I love away from me.
But those photos fill me with calm. They make me remember how blessed I have been to be given the family I was given — how blessed I’ve been to go through life with such a colorful cast of characters.
They bring perspective and clarity — they help me see the long view, something I forget to do far too often. They remind me that every day really is precious — every moment is.
That is all a photo is, too: a snapshot of a moment in time. It locks our world and our lives in place, so we can see and feel and understand the deep meaning in them.
Our fast-paced world is in desperate need of such perspective. As our markets crash and our politics get ugly — as the media report every day on the various ways the sky is falling — we need to stand above the fray. We need to keep hold of ourselves.
I know a perfect way to get started.
If you’re lucky enough to still have your parents in your life, go to their house and get out the old photo box.
Note: This column is an excerpt from Tom Purcell’s new book, “An Apple Core, a Toilet: Misadventures of a 1970s Childhood.” Purcell is a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review humor columnist. Send comments to Tom at Purcell@caglecartoons.com.
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