Photographs and Memories

There was an ash tree growing in the front yard of the house I grew up in. It had wide, spreading branches that were arranged almost like a staircase, which made for easy climbing. I remember the feel of the tree bark against the inside of my bare arms and legs as I would reach up and grab the lowest branch, and wrap my legs around it to pull myself up. From there I could scamper into the safety of the air high above the ground, hidden from everyone and everything by the broad leaves. To this day, I can identify an ash tree by the distinctive diamond-shaped pattern of its bark, which became so familiar to me over the years I spent up in that tree.

The photo I brought today for our altar of memories is a picture of me in that tree along with my siblings. You’ll see me at the top, then my younger sister Anne, my older sister Nancy, and, at the bottom, my brother Jeff. We came to call this “the family tree” because, for several years in a row, my father would have us climb into it and he’d take a picture to show how we’d grown and changed over the course of the year.

I brought this picture today because it says a few things about me. First, and most obviously, it shows that I’m part of a family, that I didn't’ grow up an only child the way both my parents did. And of course, that sparks all kinds of memories in itself. This picture also reminds me of how much I loved climbing trees as a kid. Not just this tree in my front yard. But just about any tree I could find. I loved to climb as high as I could and then sit on a branch so that I could feel the tree sway with the wind. This picture reminds me of the exhilaration I felt climbing a massive white pine tree at summer camp one summer with my best friend, Will Bartlett. He and I went all the way to the top, maybe a hundred feet up, and from there we could see out over all the other trees and look at the lake. We were up so high and for so long that we missed dinner, and the counselors had to search for us, and we only came down when we heard them calling our names as the sun was setting.

So, this picture stimulates some happy memories. But looking at it more closely, it says something about who I am and who I grew up to be. As I said, in the picture I’m on the highest branch, then my younger sister, then my older sister, then my brother. Had we been arranged in our birth order, I would have been on the second-highest branch, not at the top. But in this picture and in every recreation of it over the years, I was always on top. I don’t think this was intentional – I was the one who loved to climb the highest, so it made sense – but I think it’s symbolic that I’m up there. I like to be on top. On top of things. On the top of my game. On top of what’s going on. You might say “in control.” The re-arranged birth order has significance for me as well. Although I was second-born in the family, I was the first son. Although I was born second, in many ways I felt like the first-born. And in the patriarchal society I grew up in during the 1960’s, I always felt a lot of pressure around that. I felt that much was expected of me. That I had to live up to my parents’, and particularly my father’s, hopes for me. I had to be the best at everything I did or tried. It’s probably why I’m a bit of a perfectionist and a know-it-all today, and maybe a little bit why I can be hard to live with. I’m not saying that this one photograph created this self-image that I’ve carried around for my entire life, but I can see how it’s a visual representation of it. I appreciate those of you who shared your memories that are prompted by these photographs we’ve assembled on our altar today, and it makes me intensely curious to hear the stories behind all the rest of them. I hope during coffee hour that you’ll all share your photos and your memories with each other.

Photographs are tools of memory, aren’t they? They help us call to mind the stories around them. “Remember that trip we took to the Grand Canyon?” we say, looking at the picture of Aunt Kay peering over the rim. And “Remember that birthday party when you were six,” we say, looking at a picture of neatly-dressed boys and girls around a table, all eyeing the cake, “and we were going to cancel it because you had the chickenpox, but all the parents in the neighborhood just wanted to get it over with and brought their kids anyway?” The stories grow out of the pictures and, through a process of accumulation, layering experience on experience, help to create the image of who we are today. When we take out a box of old pictures, or a photo album (or, today, a book from Shutterfly or a Google Photos file), we are piecing together our past and piecing together a wider picture of ourselves. Through the pictures we see and the stories we tell, we are re-membering ourselves, our families, each other. Re-membering. Putting the pieces back together.

Now, we have to admit that the pictures and the stories they prompt us to tell don’t give us the full picture of who we were or who we’ve become. We know that our photos only tell, at best, half of the story. Because, at least in my experience, we only tend to take photos of the good times. The celebrations, the victories, the milestones, the silly times, the fun times. I don’t know anyone who snaps a photo of the bad times so that they can go back some day in the future to remember or relive them. And the truth is that trauma and traumatic experiences don’t need to be photographed, because they’re burned into our brains in ways that are very different from vacations and birthday parties. Our image of ourselves is much more complex than can ever be captured in any photo album. We need to keep in mind that there’s more to our story – much more – than what our photos reveal.

Pictures, photos, videos are a funny thing. They capture an event, but not the reality of the event itself, not our personal experience of it or the meaning we give to it. It is notoriously true that four people standing on four corners of an intersection can witness the same accident and will tell four different stories of what happened. The same is true for our photographs. We each bring our own perspectives, histories and experiences to the event that’s captured there. I’m sure that my siblings remember our “family tree” photos in ways that are different from my memories. For example, I know that one of my sisters is afraid of heights, so I’m guessing these photo shoots were a source of fear and anxiety for her. While I loved showing off and climbing high into the tree, she was hanging on for dear life. Did my brother ever feel like he got the short end of the stick, so to speak, always being on the lowest branch of the tree? Did he long to be on top, or, maybe even better, to push me off to take my place? I’ll have to ask him.

Photographs can be tricky, and even dangerous, too. Because the stories that grow up around them may not be of our own making. We can become trapped by them. Take, for example, the home movie my father took of my sister trying to back up our garden tractor with a trailer attached to it. Everyone knows that backing up a trailer is tricky, and as a 12 year-old, Nancy had to learn that the hard way, and it’s preserved on film for all of us to witness. To the rest of the family, it’s a hilarious silent movie of her repeated attempts and repeated failures, until she literally throws her hands up in the air and stomps off in a fit of frustration. But to my sister, these images capture an embarrassing incident that, I’m guessing, undermined her self-confidence and echoed in her psyche for years, maybe even to this day. If we’re not careful, we can be defined by the images captured on video or in photos, and the stories we and others tell about them.

So, we need to be vigilant about how much power we place in the photographs and the stories – perhaps the epic family myths – that have grown up around them. We need to be able to embrace those that help us and let go of, or even destroy, the ones that don’t. On balance, does your photograph encourage you toward your better nature? Does the story it tells, the story you’ve told, the stories others have told, move you toward fulfillment, satisfaction, completeness? Are they stories of building up or of breaking down? Have you been laughing with others in shared good humor, or have you stoically allowed others to laugh at you while for years you’ve been crying on the inside?

We like to think that our memories are of our own making, but is that ever really so? When I’m outside by myself on a cloudless, moonless night and I see a shooting star, I’ll be the only one who remembers the awe that I felt in that moment. But, even then, where does that sense of awe come from? It must have been instilled in me somewhere, by someone or something. Who taught me to look up, and why was it important to them? I could tell you the story of how our family sat with rapt attention to the television set as the astronauts of Apollo 8 orbited the moon in the Christmas of 1968, or how, years before that, my parents gave me a cardboard mock-up of a Gemini space ship that I spent hours inside, pretending I was orbiting the earth. The things we see, the things we notice, the things we experience are colored and shaped by layer upon layer of memory, memories that stretch back not just to our childhoods, but to those of our parents and grandparents. They are, in a very real sense, embedded in our DNA. Like photographs handed down through the ages, with the stories that accompany them.

Memories aren’t made in a vacuum, and very few, if any, are cut out of whole cloth. The stories we tell are links in a long chain that stretches back beyond our own lifetimes, and they’ll carry forward beyond them as well. As our pictures prompt us to name and to claim our histories, our own memories, we would do well to remember that. We have been handed a tapestry created by others. What we do with the threads, how we add to the design, is up to us. And then we hand it off to those who follow us. Let us all be caretakers of myth and memory while we are also weavers of our life’s design.

This day, and every day, I wish you peace. Amen.