The story of a photo

The story of a photo

Are pictures about the past, the present, or the future?

One defining word for celebrating a new year prior to covid was the word “new” — new calendar year, new beginnings, new opportunities, new adventures, new perspectives to old issues.

And while the pandemic squashed many such plans, here we are, fast approaching the two-year covid anniversary (should I use a positive word for such a negative experience?), I refuse to be immobilized! So I have decided that as I begin 2022, I am ready for some kind of change — a change that is in my control, of course. Not something like a covid cure. Nothing too drastic, mind you, but a change that will liven things up a bit.

So here is my plan.

I have thought a good deal lately about comments from many friends — good friends, I might add, who offered honest opinions simply because I asked for them — that the knotty pine wood on the walls in my den is, shall we say, so very 1960s. (Not an earth-shattering issue, I agree, but do our thoughts always have to be earth-shattering?) They are not wrong, I admit to myself, but can I actually do something about it? Do I want the work, the mess, the decision-making, the expense? While change, as a rule, is something I do not happily do, my ego reminds me that I can handle this change far better than I can handle being viewed as old-fashioned and stuck in a long-ago decade. The decision is made: the wood has got to go.

But I have one major dilemma: The walls and the bookshelves in the den are covered with family photographs — many, many family photos. I love every one of them, yet I know it’s time for a change. Childhood pictures, or at least most of them, should be replaced with current photos. And I need to retire some photos to a drawer. I have a close friend who efficiently “cleaned things up and out” when she transitioned from a house to an apartment. She gently pointed out that the photos in the den are so numerous and so crowded that the observer cannot appreciate the subject of each picture; the room puts the human eye on overdrive. She is right. Yet I admit every picture is a treasure, and the process of updating and eye-pleasing spacing will be the biggest challenge of all.

Why is this so difficult for me to do?

I recently enjoyed a Shabbat lunch with good friends in their home. While walking toward the front door, I casually shared my surprise that there were no wedding photographs anywhere of their daughter (or the family) who was married about four years ago. My friend laughed a bit and responded that she really doesn’t need such photos. And she added that I like connecting to the past, while she looks only at the present. My friend’s honest remark did not offend me whatsoever. But it was an interesting viewpoint, I thought, and since that conversation, I have wondered often if that casual remark was in any way a valid assessment of my approach to life.

On another day, I was talking to the adult son of a woman I had known many years ago. He was bemoaning the fact that his mother had a somewhat dark view of the world, and that she rarely traveled to see him or her grandchildren. He added that in her home, there were no photos of her children or grandchildren; the only pictures were of relatives who had died. Now that, you will agree, is a serious attachment to the past. I remember feeling sad for my former friend and thinking I have a much healthier approach to life.

A third view of home photographs came from a discussion I had with my 64-year-old niece, who has been blind for the last 29 years. She has a number of walls in her home that her husband has covered with photographs of their children, both when they were young and as adults, and of all of their grandchildren. She was already blind when her third child was born, and quite obviously she has never actually seen any of her eight grandchildren. Yet she tells me that it is very important to her that those pictures are there. The simple fact that she knows they exist and are visible for others to enjoy is what matters most to her.

Ms. Bieler’s father, atop a toy horse, stares quizzically from a very old photograph.

Now all of us know that when you are looking to sell your house, real estate agents often advise you to put all your personal photos away. Prospective buyers don’t want to see the home as something belonging to you, but rather want to imagine how things would look if the house belonged to them. Makes perfect sense, doesn’t it? Family photographs transform a house into a loving home.

Having given this issue a good amount of thought, I have come to the conclusion that my good friend is wrong; past, present, and future are all a piece of me. But a photo on my wall is more than simply a photo; it is the memory of that moment in time that comes to life. It is the place, the celebration, the age, the mood, the season when the shutter clicked.

Days can be long, but years are short, and a memory that you were certain is unforgettable can fade over time. But the photo is a magical reset button.

It is a reminder of what was happening in our lives then or in the individual lives of our children or grandchildren, or what was happening in our parents’ or grandparents’ or perhaps even our great-grandparents’ lives. It is, in a way, a snippet of the story of who we each were at the time the picture was snapped, a moment to be treasured because we will never be able to have that moment back again. It’s not preferring the past; rather, it is simply celebrating that specific day of life’s journey. And remembering it. And smiling. “Photography is the art of making memories tangible,” wrote Destin Sparks, an award-winning landscape photographer based in Queensland, Australia.

Studies have shown that children who grow up seeing family photos on the wall grow up with greater confidence and a strong sense of belonging. It can also connect one generation to another and can represent strong relationships between close relatives or friends. And if you or your child never knew the relative in the photo, it surely is an opportunity to share that history, so that person’s life story lives on through the generations.

I’m always telling my grandchildren stories about our family. There are, after all, so many stories to share. And I think I do that because of personal regret, regret that such stories were rarely told to me and I never thought to ask the questions. So much information is missing, and now there is no one to ask.

As a simple example, I have a photo of my father as a little boy, sitting on a toy horse. The photo was taken before he immigrated to America with his family. I wonder how his family had the money to pay a professional photographer. But what captures my attention and touches my heart every single time I look at the picture is the serious, sad look on my father’s sweet face. And I never asked him why. So I keep telling my stories and my family’s stories and my late husband’s stories and his family’s stories; the goal is that my children and their children will know “the whole story” and will never, or rarely, have such regrets.

My friends and I often joke with each other (though there is an unconscious sadness as well) that when we die, our kids will look at our “things” and trash a good deal of them. Haven’t we done that with much of our own parents’ “treasures”. How I hope that will not be the case with some of my things — photos included. The Baal Shem Tov wrote: “When you hold a part of the essence, you hold all of it.” I want my beloved family to feel that full essence.

So I have a serious job on my hands. Photos down, photos up, mix and match, room to breathe, treasured faces, less clutter, sleeker, cleaner looking, a new beginning in a new year.

And yes, the knotty pine wood definitely will be gone as well.

Tzivia Bieler and her late husband, Bruno, moved to Teaneck in January 1974. She retired three years ago as the executive office director of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. Retirement brings her pleasure, and more time to spend with children and grandchildren in United States and Israel.

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