Memories and Photographs


Eight banker's boxes in the garage contained over three thousand photos. Some of these pictures were ripped from the pages of scrap-books with glue and remnants of black pages stuck to the back, so the images on the front were slowly disappearing. These were pre-digital, mostly pre-phone camera photos from the early 20th century to yesterday. Eras and persons, covering five generations of German-Irish Weslings and Ukrainian-Norwegian Dulinawkas, were entirely scrambled.


The task was to preserve and organize, so that eventually we'll have copies of a DVD with slide-shows set to music, to give to children and grandchildren. Since my wife Judith disagrees with my categories, thinks my plan hasty and restricted, I waited until she went to Wisconsin for a visit so I could set out piles of pictures on tables in the living room.


In my seventy-sixth summer, I will organize these into fourteen categories starting with the life-stories of my wife and myself as founders of our little clan, working through our three children, six grandchildren, our own parents on both sides, places we've been, documents that deserve to be kept. (Documents include children's drawings, home-made New Year cards and a copy of an honorary doctorate from Budapest.) My two rules of selection were to spare embarrassment for all of us: No Pictures of Naked Children; No Pictures of Old Boyfriends/Girlfriends. It was wrong to admit these exclusions to Judith, who's horrified by my obscuring of the total record. But the one who does the work gets to make the rules!


We inherited the old black-and-white photos from our parents: scenes from their thirties-to-fifties Buffalo, from Judith's family farm south of Buffalo, from my parents' summer cabin on Rice Lake in Canada. We ourselves took almost all of the rest. After about 1970 all photos are in color. Certain patterns of family recording only emerge when I do my survey: first child of two or three always receives eager photographic attention, later children less so; after a child hits thirteen or fourteen, hardly any photos can be found, so plainly fewer were taken.


What is the meaning of photographs for the art that captures memories by the action of light on sensitive surfaces, for the life of the one quickly caught, the catcher, the viewer? What do we have in family photos that may be different from news or portrait photos, different from professional artistic or doctored work? The scanner would answer that the snapshot has most intimately to do with living in a once-only space and time, living in family, living in history. This is the snatched moment at the dinner table, on the front porch or back deck, the children on bikes, the egg-hunts, weddings, birthdays, reunions, funerals, boys flashing rabbit-ears behind the heads of brothers, views of a collapsed barn.


Snapshots are random and raw, unpracticed, and yet the photos of everyone, even babies, have in the face a guarded awareness, the intelligence of permission. Head-on there is the lidded pose of self-contained amusement. I see this not only in humans but in cats, too. The only exception to this comes when the camera catches a face from the side, a head from the back.


For most of us, not continually on show like actors, it's only through the family snapshots that we see ourselves from the side or back, our height in relation to others, what happens to our eyes when we hold a toddler who's our child or our child's child. Of course we are actors continually on show, but we forget that for long stretches.


Seeing all my beloved human family who are alive while I am alive, tracking each of them through a hundred or more photos of different stages of their lives, I realize vividly through images what I knew in theory, that the body is the mind and the face is the feelings and the hands are relationships with others and each other. Hold these images: a baby under a year old has fat rounded feet but once she walks the feet flatten out; loving and shielded by love, a four year old moving and talking is the most perfect instance of the human being, with form transparent to indwelling spirit.


A distortion like a physical rage takes over the middle-school child in the years twelve to fourteen, years of orthodonture, unruly long hair, acne, suddenly long limbs, black hoodies worn every day of the week, reluctance to be photographed. Out of this being emerges the young adult of fifteen to eighteen whose body is increasingly achieved, in gestures of unspeakable grace, skin with ruddy-golden glow, foxy-faced, carelessly sexually ready, caught in soccer-stride or in a bikini at a beach party, girls and boys both nearly beyond those terms, on the edge of independence, never again so beautiful but not knowing that.


Your mid-life twenties, thirties, forties, fifties, sixties, all those busy years rush past so eagerly, so redundantly, that the images often can't be dated. The seventies to the nineties are known in their ravages, so we would speak only of how the frail one would smile, accept the humiliation of the rotten image as the price of participating, caring and being cared for, such good sports we, all of us, are. We're only surprised that we're not surprised at understanding this about our parents, whose head-of-clan roles Judith and I and our siblings have now long since taken on.


memories 1


Our parents lived from the second decade of the twentieth century to the first decade of the twenty-first. They experienced the Depression, WWII, dads working in Buffalo factories and mothers working cleaning others' houses or minding the office of West Seneca's historical society. Our fathers carried lunch-pails; they punched a card in a clock at arrival at the Chevy Plant or Bethlehem Steel. Their generation was the last massively to move from working to middle class, because they could enjoy decent factory salaries and pensions.


The photos show that from early on both families had their own rural retreats, forty acres with a cabin and Christmas trees for Judith's family, and a cabin-plus-dock on Rice Lake in Canada for my parents' long summer of fishing, after retirement. High-school graduates who came to a life of work in the last years of the Depression, they sent all of us to college in the fifties, when tuition was $2000 a year. That seems low, but to place that number here's another: in those years the Wesling house in South Buffalo cost $7000.


The photos show that our parents were often at gatherings in halls of fire-stations, churches, cabins and open-end shelters at local parks, their own homes or homes of extended family: with beers in ice-buckets, card-games, story-telling, dancing. They were often out in restaurants for fish-fries or beef-on-weck. My parents had Canadian friends for fishing, boating, or staying up half the night to play cards. Unlike Judith and me, who used our salary to travel for study, jobs, or conferences in foreign countries, our parents had no get-out-of-town longings. They had parties with the people around them. They could talk with, sympathize with anyone. They knew how to have fun.


Now we, helped by these images, are the only ones who remember the achievements, joys and sufferings of that generation. That's one thing I've come to know, scanning the family photos. I knew it already but now I know it more massively across over two thousand images each of which takes a minute in the Epson scanner. I know it in detail through these snaps, which are more trustworthy as evidence exactly because they catch us in action, mostly unplanned. And no conceivable record could be complete.


I also know better these things I already knew: the horde of nameless emotions that rush past a smile, the proud welcome of a little boy's weight in his mother's arms, the wild urgency of the search to reproduce, the hard-wired sequence of the body's changes from a baby girl's fat little feet to veins like worms in her great-grandmother's arms.


Writers already knew what I now know from them and from my scanning. Samuel Johnson in his essay on biography said: What is nearest us touches us most. Robert Frost in his poem on being a swinger-down of birch trees said: Earth's the right place for love---I don't know where it's likely to go better. Yes, Frost, and photography, a technology now ancient and vanishing and requiring scanning to stay, is in the family snapshot transforming love, light, and earth into meaning.



Donald Wesling

Donald Wesling

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