Thursday, January 25, 2007

Article: My father's memories

One of my projects for the new year is to compile a passel of slides I inherited from my father.

Dad died when I was in high school but we hadn’t lived with him since I was four. He worked for UNESCO as a professor and spent much of his life teaching in Latin America. When he died. I didn’t have the sense of immediate loss that many children would. Instead I mourned what might have been. Dad was living in Sylmar, California at the time, less than two hours drive from our house. Once I had the freedom of a car, I hoped to develop a real relationship with him. His death put an end to that dream and I have always resented him for that.

My slide project didn’t start out as something I did for myself. I was going to compile these memories for my younger brother for his fiftieth birthday coming up in March. His reaction to Dad’s death was different from mine. He developed something of a hero worship of our father, pulling all of his meager memories together to form an image of a man who may never have existed. I knew Stephen had few photos of Dad or of our early childhoods. A photo album would be the perfect gift for him. Then last year Stephen died suddenly.

As Stephen’s birthday approaches, I decided to go ahead with the project. I imagine him sitting down with his kids, who are about the same ages we were when our father died, opening the album and pouring over the ancient images with them. He’d spin tale after tale, weaving what few memories he had into the tapestry of a person, his father, a great man. Even though he won’t be there to do that, I thought he would still want his children to know our father as much as possible. So I began scanning in the slides.

I have maybe three-hundred images, paper-mounted and color distorted. I haven’t taken as good care of them as I should for they are scratched and dusty. In the margins of many is Dad’s elegant handwriting giving a simple explanation of the image. On one he wrote “Beauty and the children.. Oct. 1955” I stopped when I read that and examined the photo. My mother, with pins in her hair, sits on the edge of a bed talking to her two oldest children. It’s not a very good photo and not flattering to anyone in it. But it is Dad’s life, distilled into tiny bits and frozen forever.

Gradually, as I’ve gone over my inheritance, I’ve realized I should have done this years ago. Not just because I could have given it to Stephen rather than to Stephen’s children but because it has given me something I missed. I missed knowing my father the way these slides let me know him. I missed day-to-day life with him. I missed knowing what he loved and cherished. He took a series of slides of the UC Berkeley campus where both he and my mother attended college. I wish I’d had those shots when I went to Berkeley. I’d like to stand where he stood to take the photo. I’d like to imagine him there as a young man living in a foreign country and meeting the love of his life.

Another group of slides focuses on a trip to Death Valley he took with my grandfather. I’ve taken my children there many times. It’s one of our favorite places. Is that something I got from him? And across all the years, a moment is captured where he plays with baby Stephen and a rubber giraffe. There’s no way Stephen could have remembered that. Except the photo would have given him that instant. He could have looked at it and known his father loved him.

It’s a lot of work scanning and repairing the slides but it is worth it. In a way, I am scanning and repairing my own life.

Photo: A scanned slide that my father took of his five kids in 1962. This is what it looked like before I started working on it.
Photo: The same photo after extensive repair. From left to right: Stephen, Melanie, Sylvia, Cynthia and George.
Photo: A rare shot of the family with my father's parents. Taken in 1955. This is after I repaired it.

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