MEMORY, LOSS, AND THE FAMILY PHOTO

This essay was presented at the New/Old Image Exchange Symposium at Ohio University in February, 2019.

Harnetty Family Portrait.jpg

Memory, Loss, and the Family Photo

Here is a portrait of my family. The photo was taken sometime in 1967, on a visit to my grandparents’ home and orchard in Junction City, Perry County, Ohio. This was six years before I was born. The photo is of my grandmother Florence, my mother Marilyn, and two of my four sisters, Lisa and Jane. It was the kind of family visit I remember taking myself years later, brief and sweet, there and back home all in a day. It was likely taken by my father, Paul, during a brief respite between two year-long stints quarantined at a tuberculosis hospital.

The photo is both posed and candid, staged and informal. Colors are warm, textures varied: mauve shirts and soft sweaters to burrow into; homemade dresses and curtains of floral patterns; Jane has a cotton quilted blanket, and Lisa a purse strapped across her shoulders; plastic flowers in the corner, matching the muted blues and pinks of backsplash tiles; a formica table, knickknacks above the cupboards, a wall calendar from the local church, and a lone pot. I am certain there is the smell of food here––of fried bacon and eggs and baked bread––which was ever-present in this kitchen.

The photo contains three generations of women. My grandmother looks wary, confident, comfortable, tolerant. But she is also apart, the only one sitting as Lisa and Jane cluster around my mother. Her cateye glasses reflect the light from the back door and shadows her eyes. A headband exposes a widow’s peak even as it keeps hair out of the way while she worked hour after hour in that very room.

My mother’s expression is composed, possibly strained. (I know this look and have used it myself on occasion: part of my inheritance, I guess.) Pursed lips, looking slightly to the side, strength and fatigue gleaned in her stoic expression. Somehow, I can’t help but think this look is directed toward my father behind the camera; she is impatient for the photo to be taken. And perhaps there is something more underneath: I read in her eyes the tensions of marriage, of sickness, of gendered work, of care labor, eyes revealing weariness in that trapped, exasperated way that parents (especially mothers) know all too well. Lisa’s expression, in contrast, is innocently open and a little bemused, happy to be there, obliging, excited to participate.

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Jane is elsewhere. She is looking out the back door, toward the daylight. She is probably four here, hair mussed, blanket in hand. She is the only one to not look at the camera or my father, her eyes wandering up and out, given to the distractions of somewhere else, of another place.

I can’t help but read into this gesture, likely just a brief unplanned distraction, a wandering attention typical of a child. (In fact, I have another photograph, taken just moments after, that contradicts my speculative reading of the image: Jane is engaged and smiling and showing off her missing front teeth.) And yet, when I look at this photograph, I am desperately scanning it over and over, searching for nascent clues and remnants, hints that might tell me why or how Jane would later develop early frontotemporal dementia, how a mind could erase itself, erase language and memory as she slowly transformed, moving from consciousness and the physical to something and someplace else entirely.

The first thing to go for Jane was language. Words and sentences became scrambled, reduced to maddening phrases caught in repeated, swirling eddies of childhood memories and her work as a nutritionist and pop-phrases and religious symbolism. Once, while holding a prayer book, running her finger along the text as if reading, she kept repeating to me:

“Sugar, milk, and diabetes
Apostle’s Creed
The Drew Carey Show
I think so.”

Even this is eventually reduced to silence; a quiet piercing stare; and finally, a delicate, frail, unknowing fistbump. She was young and strong. Her body was fine. She just forgot to talk, to remember, to eat.

If memory and presence are so easily wiped away, why do we bother with these images? What is the point? And furthermore, isn’t unknowing and silence the supposed ideals of contemplatives and mystics? To live in the present moment? The eternal now? To move into the “cloud of unknowing”? No, this seems untenable if you can not hold the past and future as well, otherwise you forget why and how to drink or talk or care.

When I was a student in London, I stayed with a friend’s Aunt and Uncle, Beatrice and Ralph. Ralph had Alzheimer's, and Beatrice said to me, “I used to think that as we got older our bodies might fail us but at least we could still share our conversations and memories. Now, even that is not possible, and all we can do is be in the presence of one another.”  This wisdom from Beatrice was true for Jane, too, but now that Jane is gone, everything has changed once again, and the photograph here becomes a weak insufficient desperate aching essential stand-in for her absence, steeped in memory.

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How is it possible to not even be born during the taking of a photo, yet now this photo is a physical object that has its own power to deeply affect me with memory? This is what another Jane––Jane Bennett––calls “vibrant materiality,” where things have their own “vitality...not only to impede or block the will and designs of humans but also to act as quasi agents or forced with trajectories, propensities, or tendencies of their own.” Or, in older, more archaic language: the photo becomes a talisman, an icon, a relic. In this photo memory spins out from the past to meet me today: memory obscured, blurred, false, approximate, and nevertheless concrete and real. Memory becomes a form of presence in the face of absence. The photo is a fuck you––however fleeting, however foolish––to the systematic erasure of a brain.

All of these different relationships––first, of shared lives and conversation; and when that is gone, simply being present with another; and when that goes, too, the fragile and temporary lattice of objects and the ephemeral memories of others––all of these relationships are waves of thought and connection overlapping and receding, resurging and also destined to disappear.

Memory and this photograph are weak proxies for the connections between people (and yes, they too will slip away), but they mean something. And a photo such as this is an object I can grasp and carry and touch, and it touches me back (Roland Barthes would say this touch goes further, it “wounds” and “pierces” me). This photo, when held in tension with the past and with memory, is something that can offer a faint thread, a finger straining to reach beyond its grasp, pointing to an absent, yet remembered presence.

This photo: a stand-in, a place-marker for a gentle, delicate, frail, unknowing fistbump. A way to make something new out of something old.