ONE OF THE great things about those retro, Polaroid-style instant cameras is experiencing the joy of the picture slowly emerging in front of you. People come out of the dim and into focus. It’s a gradual appearance many younger folks don’t get to appreciate in this digital age, when everything is always right in front of them, right away.
It is also a visual reminder that really recognizing people can take time—in some cases, especially when they are close to you. That came to mind recently when I was going through some things passed on to me after my father’s death last summer.
He was a good if somewhat distant man, someone I longed to know better. I was aware that I had inherited some of his looks and his journalist genes, but never got to really discover how alike, or otherwise, we may have been on the inside.
Among the bits and pieces was an account he’d written of the time we visited Gettysburg together a quarter century ago. I savored the three days we spent there as a pair of Civil War buffs; it was the longest time I ever had him to myself.
“What a marvelous three days they were,” he wrote. The site of the high water mark of the Confederacy was “a high point, too, in the life of a retired Englishman as he stood with his son…” Wow: in reserve-speak, that’s in block capital letters.
And then there was the photo. Actually, a photo-booth strip of four from a family vacation way back when. My sister and I are goofing off in the front, with Mom and Dad in the background. It’s the third frame that captivates me.
Instead of looking straight ahead at the camera, my parents are turned toward each other in delight. I’d never seen that expression traded between them before. I’m not saying they didn’t love each other—they did, fiercely and long, in their own sometimes fractious way. But that shared moment of unburdened joy was new to me.
Catching a glimpse of this didn’t make me feel awkward or intrusive. Not like when you’ve just had the birds and bees talk and you suddenly realize that your existence means that your parents must have . . . eww, gross!
No, it was somehow a comfort, to know that someone who seemed to live much of his life in the shadows had some splashes of sunlight. It draws me back to the picture again and again. But as I look at it, I am left with one final thought: How on earth did they let me out in public with such a terrible haircut?