Today was, like so many days after divorce, an exercise in looking forward and looking back.
I spent a few hours today Christmas shopping — happily gobbling up bargains on gifts I’d decided on for my nearest and dearest, and, at the end of my travels, discovered that I am approximately half-way finished with my shopping. (Yay me!)
Everything is so much more cheerful when you’re content, isn’t it? The exhausted, screaming toddlers with their universal mantra of “But I want it!!” didn’t bother me. The overstuffed parking lots didn’t bother me. The aggressive, over-caffienated shopping crowds didn’t bother me. Even the inconsiderate woman at the post office who cut in front of a line of 20 waiting people didn’t bother me. I was in a happy little cocoon of contentment. I thanked the sales ladies, held doors for old folks and young mothers, and slowly ticked things off the list on my iPhone. Basically, I was precisely the kind of Pollyanna holiday shopper that I would have found terminally grating two years ago. But that’s okay. I served my sentence of a miserable holiday season the first year after my separation. In fact, my divorce became final between Thanksgiving and Christmas that year. And last year, James and I broke up suddenly, the week before Christmas. So, I think I’m entitled to a little bit of a Jimmy Stewart Christmas this time around.
But all good things must come to an end, and this perfect day was no exception.
Upon arriving home and cataloging, then hiding, my purchases, I set upon the one big task I have given myself for this long weekend: to finally tackle the photographs and empty albums that have been cluttering up my laundry room and clucking at my procrastination for two long years now. Every few months, I have added another envelope from the Costco photo center to the pile in the box, and on multiple occasions I have quite sincerely added “Do Photo Albums” to my short-term to-do list. And yet, somehow, the photos have proven horribly stubborn and refused to organize themselves and find their way into the albums. No, instead they have sat there. Silently mocking me.
So, it was time.
I like taking pictures. I don’t have a great camera — most times I just use my iPhone camera — but I love capturing those moments that then become part of our history. Indeed, I think I’ve been known to build my memories around my photos, allowing them to dictate the terms of the memory, rather than the actual memory stored in my brain. So, obviously, my photographs are important to me.
When I was married, I filled album after album with photos of our family, friends, pets, and favorite places. My ex-husband humored me and would just smile when I dragged out my albums and the various accoutrements necessary to compose a family keepsake.
But now, for more than two years, I have actively neglected my albums and the ever-expanding pile of photographs.
With my girls gone and no other projects screaming for priority, I hauled the Rubbermaid plastic box overflowing with photographs into the dining room. I organized my materials (Damn! I left my paper cutter at my ex’s!), fixed myself a cup of tea, put on some good music, and commenced a photographic review of the last 2 1/2 years of my life….
To be honest, it was more tedious than painful. Sifting through hundreds of photographs, deciding what to keep and use in the albums, what to toss, and what to give to the girls for their albums. After 3 hours, I’d finished one year.
As the photos flitted across the table, from one pile to another or into the album, I found myself relaxing. There weren’t actually many pictures of my formerly intact family; these photos were almost entirely acquired beginning 3 months after my departure from the family home. Some I took, some my mother took, and some my ex took and forwarded on to me as a courtesy. Generally, they weren’t special in any particular way. Except that, in their very essence, they were extraordinary: what I saw, in the subtext of the pictures, was the processing of a pain and grief and bewilderment so powerful that I appear to have been holding my breath for many, many months. Or at least that’s what it looks like in the photos.
There are the forced smiles of me and my girls and we struggle mightily to create a new “normal.” The overly-extravagant birthday parties and cakes me, my ex, and our parents created for the girls that year, for reasons that are now unclear…. because we felt guilty?… because we thought a great cake and expensive party would somehow distract them from the fact that their family was broken? The vacations in which I appear utterly exhausted by the effort to conceal the fact that I was crying into my pillow each night. My dad and I in an embrace 4 months after my separation, and my hand holding his arm so tightly, I’m certain I was doing permanent damage to his circulation.
It’s all there, in glorious Kodachrome color. The pain, the confusion, the determination to carry on.
Then, about half-way through that first year on my own, my smile begins to look less tight, the girls’ stances less stiff and posed. We are carrying on, and not because we have to, but because we want to. Hope has blessed us with her presence again.
By the time I stopped tonight, I was fatigued and headachy. It is a lot to absorb in one sitting — the evidence of our sadness and fear and perseverance and re-emergence of hope. But it is there. All of it. And now it is in pretty albums, preserved for the years to come. So that we may look back and see how far we’ve traveled and know that we overcame the greatest and most difficult challenge a family faces — fracturing itself and having to create something new. But we did it. All of us.
And I have the pictures to prove it.