At 21, I moved away from the street in Brooklyn where I grew up, the street where my mother still lived, to an apartment in Queens. The subway took me there in half an hour, but for my mother it may as well have been China. Her entire life was spent in close proximity to her own mother, and it was clear that the same was expected of me. But I had to live my own life … find my own way. For better or worse, this pursuit resulted in decades of missed family events and shared family experiences. The recent passing of my mother has brought me back – back to Puerto Rico, back to an appreciation of family, back into the loving embrace of the women who raised me.
During this trip to Puerto Rico, I stayed with my aunt and uncle. To pass time, I asked to see their old photographs. Both were present during much of my childhood, and I was certain they had tons. With humor and patience, my aunt opened her armoire and brought forth a treasure trove of photo albums that she herself had carefully assembled. Pages and pages of photographs glued down, then sealed under clear plastic sheets. OMG! A giant step back in time to when I was young and awkward looking, then younger and even more awkward looking, then to a time before I was born, then to times concurrent with my childhood. So many experiences with a vibrant and loving family missed.
My 79 year-old uncle is stoic with a capital ‘S,’ and quick-tempered to boot! Yet there he was, in photo after photo, a well-dressed stud enjoying youth just like we all did. And he looked happy! And my aunt – what a stylish babe – sporting a tall and fabulous hairstyle created, naturally, by a gay cousin. And my mother, proving in photo after photo that she was never not ready for the lens of a camera. And my beloved grandmother who left us in 1980 — how she spoiled me. Heart-warming to see her face again.
My aunt and uncle were patient with my desire to relive these memories, but I could tell they loved being engaged. “Why do you want to see these old photos?” and “I don’t remember where that was,” gave way to “That was in so and so’s house. I remember the table.” and “Look at me. I dressed so well back then.” And the comical bickering between two folks who haven’t been able to live with or without each other for 60 years.
“Look at what’s become of you.”
“Being with you has destroyed me.”
I took photographs of the old prints with my new digital camera, then proceeded to text the images to family members back in New York. My nostalgia became infectious. Even Mr. Stoic began to gently poke fun at his younger self; the sly smile on his face said it all. I was so happy at that moment. This is the past that I wanted to relive. Who knew that a DSLR would help bridge the 30-year generation gap between us?
This is the age of digital everything. We view colored pixels as often as we take a breath. But holding an old photograph in your hand can make the memory much more powerful. Under-exposed; badly composed; even photo-bombed! Old photographs may be imperfect, but they always take you there.