It always surprises me how the seemingly simple administrative tasks can floor me with grief. This year, it was the act of compiling our family photo album that undid me.
Sifting through thousands of digital photos, I selected one smiling face after another for the album: Jon and the boy go camping with our friends; my best friend takes the boy to a National Trust Home, and he pouts as she dresses him in Tudor costume; Jon and the boy go to a cafe together.
There are pages and pages of the boy smiling in these different events, and I am glad, because he has a full and good life, with joy and exploration.
Here is a photo of Jon and the boy at the beach, a page full of late lazy summer sun and the yellow-brown sand, broken up by the blue and black stripes of the boy’s swimming costume. I see another set of photos of the boy with his four cousins, one of whom I have yet to meet, and they hold up their hands full of sticky dough from making pizza with Grandma.
Always one for reviewing and looking back, I enjoy compiling photo albums, because it is a way of revisiting memories, tasting life twice. This year’s album, however, is alien to me. My own family album is a book full of other people’s memories.
Every now and again, I come across a precious event that I was part of. Here is a trip to the sea front, where I am watching my boy scoot one-legged with a mad speed, shooting the other leg out to the side and twisting it as he flies past just to show me how proficient he is: he can wiggle and scoot at the same time. Suddenly I can see him as a teenager, performing a skateboarding move in the nonchalant way that teens do, as though they don’t care who’s watching, whilst secretly really caring who’s watching.
There is a picture of me, smiling in the early Spring sunshine, holding the boy, hugging him as he squirms to escape. I enlarge that photo of me so that it takes up the whole of one A4 page. What I can’t provide in quantity I will make up for in size.
In fact, I supersize most of the photos I can find of me. (Wow, I look thin! And surprisingly good, I think. Does this count as an achievement – being photogenic? I delete all the unflattering photos of me, but leave the one of me in Torquay looking super-skinny with great make-up. Now that I think about it, I think I asked Jon to stand on a chair to take the picture so that it would be a flattering angle, and I was sucking in my stomach. I probably don’t look like that in real life. But the photo looks pretty darn good, and that’s enough. The album will tell its own happy story.)
I flick past the next set of photos – another visit up-country for Jon and the boy to see friends and family – more faces, more places, no me.
Where am I? I have lost myself amongst the crowd of memories that are not my own. This is my life, and I am not in it.
Where am I in my son’s life? There are no photos of me in pyjamas, but that is how I spend the majority of my waking hours. Instead, there are occasional tableaux of normality: I pop up every now and again in a restaurant with my son and husband, wheelchair discreetly to one side, sitting in a proper chair, all glammed up. Here is another one of us going to choose a Christmas tree as a family, me wearing my new faux-fur coat.
Is this me? Am I Mrs Banks in Mary Poppins, a glamorous but fleeting presence in my son’s life, someone who plays at being Mummy for photo opportunities?
I am dissolving with every picture I add to the album, I am growing smaller and smaller, until I fear that perhaps I no longer exist. Every now and again, I come across a photo of myself, and I enlarge it and put it in the album.
(I wondered how I got through it last year without tears – and then I remembered that I had sobbed my way through that one, too. I had just forgotten that it had been painful. Memory is such a traitor. I will forget again by the time next year comes, no doubt.)
I spend a day or two in a cloud of mourning: another year gone. On the internet, I am a successful writer, I tweet witty things (when I remember that I am witty), and there is nothing to distinguish me between the other writer friends I have.
But this album exposes the truth – there is a big world out there, and I am only half-living in it.
Eventually I sob out to a few friends on Voxer: Who am I? What am I doing with my life? – and it feels good to have released something. My friend Sarah replies, and says that in lots of cultures around the world, the women, particularly the mothers, are the archivists. They record the memories, take the photos, write the stories.
Archivist. I roll that word in my head for a few days, and I like it. In our family, I am the one who records the fact that our boy currently wants to be an A&E doctor, a writer of Magic Man novels and a bin-man. I write down his funny sayings in secret, treasuring them up. I am the annoying one with the camera at Christmas and birthdays, asking everyone to smile.
My role is family archivist, the memory keeper. As I consider my actions as a role, it helps – I feel more solid, corporeal again.
The memory keeper. It reminds me of a poem by Jenny Rowbory, describing Jesus as a librarian who keeps a jar of every single tear. I loved that image of the unseen Christ, carefully preserving the tears as they fall.
It recalls the sadness of the psalmist who whispers to God:
“You have kept record
of my days of wandering.
You have stored my tears
in your bottle
and counted each of them.” (Psalm 56:8 CEV)
I pause to consider God as an archivist of our lives. He sees. He remembers. He records the tears that are shed, the private griefs and smiles that no one captures on camera. He is the memory keeper.
So this one is for all those who feel their lives and identity disappearing – through the demands of parenthood, or illness, or grief, or a move, or unemployment, or infertility, or the oppressive busyness of life.
You are whole, and you are valuable. Your tears are counted and kept in His jar. Your pain is recorded on His scroll. You are seen.
“You’ve kept track of my every toss and turn
through the sleepless nights,
Each tear entered in your ledger,
each ache written in your book.” Psalm 58:6 (The Message)
Today I’m thankful to be a memory-keeper, and thankful to have God as mine.
“Your tears are counted and kept in His jar. Your pain is recorded on His scroll.” – @Tanya_Marlow
“This one is for all those who feel their lives and identity disappearing” – The Memory Keeper by @Tanya_Marlow:
“The album will tell its own happy story.” Who takes the photos in your family? @Tanya_Marlow – The Memory Keeper:
“My own family album is a book full of other people’s memories.” – @Tanya_Marlow – The Memory Keeper:
“There is a big world out there, and I am only half-living in it.” @Tanya_Marlow on the grief of chronic illness:
“I pause to consider God as the archivist of our lives.” @Tanya_Marlow on photo albums and Psalm 56:
Over to you:
- In what ways are you the archivist, either of your life or your family’s?
- What difference does it make to you to know God as your memory-keeper?