I think I was a cat for Halloween one year. I have a picture of me in a leotard and tights with a construction paper ears and a tail and my face painted white with black whiskers. It’s not much of a tail and I remember being a little disappointed that I didn’t have a cloth one with wire in it so that I could make it twitch or at least curl it interestingly. I don’t remember anything else about that Halloween, or that costume. But I do have the picture.
I’m trying to work with the notion of family stories in some essays that I am writing. The need for those stories and the variability of those stories and how they organize and glue together families. The problem is that I need examples and at any given moment in time I can’t just call up stories. My memory is entirely associative. It’s as if my memory is a very tangled ball of twine — the only way to find my memories is to be offered an end of the string made up of some other memory or some remark from someone. Or a picture.
I have a small album of pictures that my mother gave to me when I got married. In it are pictures of me as a child and a few of me and my siblings. I love those pictures.
Some of those pictures of me are from before I making conscious memories. There are pictures of me being held by my grandparents. One of me as a one year-old proudly wearing my father’s watch. And oh the hair, bright white and all over the place — fright-wig and looks like Einstein were frequent remarks.
Slowly as a I page through the pictures some things become clearer. I remember a house we lived in when I was 4 and my grandparent’s back yard. There’s the one of my in a tutu and those blue cat eye glasses with my friend from kindergarten — whose name was… oh yeah Linda! And how I wanted to be a ballerina — but I don’t think I ever took dance lessons. (If I’m wrong my mom will tell me.)
There are pictures of me and my siblings. One special one of the five of us just after my youngest brother was born. I don’t remember the picture being taken but I do remember the warm September day that he was born. The neighbor was looking after us and told us in the middle of the afternoon that we had a brother. And remembering that afternoon reminds me of the family story that’s told about my brother’s birth. You see, it’s said that my dad and the doctor watched the first game of a Pirates double-header while waiting for my brother to be born. It continues that after Joe’s birth with my dad, the doctor, and my new baby brother watching the second game. True? Most likely not. But it’s been told over and over again and it does explain Joe’s grade-school obsession with baseball.
Once I start down that road — grab that bit of string of memory I can find another story and another story and yet another. Stories about my brothers and their oddly balanced relationship (5 years and a goodly number of pounds separated them but they put up a united front whenever challenged.) Stories about my sisters and their passions, one for music, the other for horses. All the things that make my family uniquely my family.
But without the first picture I get no where.
So I keep in my studio a small brown, now quite beaten up, photo album. With a handful of pictures. That can send me back in time and unravel my memory knots. Every time I open it I’m grateful that my mom made it for me.