Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Photographic Memories

This was first published by my church magazine in about 1988. A few years later, it was published in the now defunct Beautiful Gardens magazine. It has the distinction of being my first published garden-related article. It's out of date both seasonally and every other way, since my son graduated from college this year, so I've updated it a little at the end. I still kind of like this one, even if it lacks some writing skill.


by Becke Davis

Today the yellow forsythia by my gate burst into bloom, and my first impulse was to grab a camera. Spring is transient, as God planned it, but my instincts rebel and I try to freeze the season on film.

I have an unreasonable need to document people and things on film, a kind of insecurity – a need to make time stand still. Even as a child, photographs were special to me: from magazine photos, garish and larger than LIFE, to the wedding album with my mother as a giggling girl, and my dad with hair. Old black-and-whites in awkward sizes, strips of pictures from 50-cent photo machines, and sepia portraits of strangers. The people in those pictures became my extended family.

Photographs are a confirmation of existence, a constant in the face of earthly mortality, the slow stream of age. I try to take mental pictures of my children, fleeting images of their childhood. My parents did the same: posing us for Christmas pictures year after year, youngest to oldest, sitting on the stairs. But memory does not focus and click on demand, and the constant changes in my garden remind me that this is all God’s plan. Photographs collect dust, curl up and fade, frozen in time. In the garden, there is movement, even when it is hidden. Life goes on.

Photographs tend to reflect my life only as I’d like to remember it – a Kodak Christmas card with pretty, dimpled children in their Sunday best. I try to freeze perfection whenever it comes close, whispering in my photographer’s voice, “Work with me; stay with me.”

Reality is unposed and often not photogenic. In my mind, I have mental pictures of periods of my life I would just as soon forget, when hours would stretch into months, and months into years. These were not flashes of time; often, they were a steady, unstoppable clockwork movement that I thought would never end.

It’s hard to remember now that my son, Jonathan, has grown, but when he was an infant and toddler, his colic defined my life for nearly two years. For hours, night after day after night, my baby would cry, seemingly without pause – his body tense and tormented, his stomach hard as a rock. I was told it would pass at three months, at six. At a year.

Every moment was another nightmare, frozen in time. I felt that I was a terrible mother, that I was missing something important, doing something wrong. As I look back, those mental pictures are either in black-and-white, cloudy with depression, or colored in the bright, swirling reds of panic and fear.

There is the picture of me sitting on the floor, zombie-like, desperate for sleep, while my four-year-old daughter runs around me, shrieking for attention, jealous of the baby screaming and writhing in my lap.

There is the picture of me in the emergency room at midnight – not for the first time – certain that they could show me a way to fix this, some undiscovered medical problem that would prove this isn’t my fault, that he isn’t crying because I’m a miserable excuse for a mother. The emergency room is starting to feel like a second home as I, the person who prides herself on never needing to ask for help, plead in vain. At night, everything is always worse.

“It’s just colic,” I’m told again by a bored, reproachful nurse, who asks if I have ever considered going to the doctor during normal office hours.

“But that’s not when he screams like he’s in agony!” I want to say it, but I don’t.

There is the picture of me at Jonathan’s six-week check-up, trying to laugh, but closer to tears.

“I’m not kidding,” I say to his pediatrician. “Make him stop crying, give him something to make him sleep. Or give me something so I can sleep. I can’t do this anymore; you said it would have stopped by now.”

And her gentle reply: “Don’t worry, some babies just take longer. He’ll be fine in a few months, you’ll see.” In a few months, he was the same.

Mostly it is just a blur: a montage of images, one on top of another. Not knowing if it was night or day, if I’d gotten dressed, or cooked dinner. Only in touch with his screams. Wrestling with the guilt that mothers are supposed to know how to make things better. Trying to find my husband and daughter, who were out there somewhere, beyond the endless crying and the dead buzz of sleeplessness. Feeling that my life, like the cycles of the tides are tied to the moon, was defined by the waking or sleeping, crying or silence of the child in my arms. Wanting to live again. Praying, and hearing no response.

There is one picture, however, that sticks in my mind. It is winter, edged in frost. My baby – my nemesis – is older now and, in fact, a little better. Sometimes, he smiles. Mostly, he still cries and does not sleep. He is crying again, and his screams echo off the winter walls; we go for a walk. The snow piled on the sidewalks prevents me from taking a stroller. In his snowsuit, my son is zipped inside my parka, and we walk and walk. He is heavy and the day is cold, and we struggle through the snow. But he sleeps. On the way home, I notice my garden. It is also sleeping; dormant, a black-and-white negative with no hint of the colors to come.

That is how the deep winter days passed. Walking and waiting, longing for hope that I could not see.

Spring developed like a Polaroid that year; a season of rebirth and wonder. Every bud on every tree was a message to me that seasons change, that life goes on. I planted a cherry tree, flush with bloom, and rushed to capture it on film. The photograph sits in an album, while the tree grows and changes, as does my child. If I were to die today, the tree would remain, tended by God’s hand. The garden will continue to unfold, season upon season, some plants thriving and others dying in their turn.

Before my birth and after my death, and in every year of my life, the change of seasons will be an eternal constant. The changes are meant to be. I look at the wild exuberance of springtime and wonder how this could ever be allowed to pass with nonchalance. Jonathan emerged like a new shoot, bright and full of life, and we entered the next season of our lives.

This year, looking for a photograph to enclose with the Christmas cards, I studied a picture of my two grown children and thought of my dormant garden. Jonathan is about to graduate from college, and is speaking of marriage. One day, he may come to me for advice about dealing with a colicky baby. What will I tell him – this, too, will pass? They do, of course. Things change. There are times we want our lives to fast-forward, and times we want to freeze the moment forever. I’ve learned not to worry so much about making time stand still.

I still take mental photographs, but now I see my life and the people I love more in terms of a garden. Some are hardy, and thrive where they are planted; others are tender and require special care. Some continue to grow and thrive, while others die in their turn.

Outside my gate, the forsythia shimmers with its golden light, but I will leave my camera on the shelf. Life goes on, I remind myself, even when the branches are bare.


debbie haupt said...

That was very touching and so true.

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