Thirty Years

This is a post from the heart.

I have been the face of chaos over the last month, flapping to stay on top of work, ducking and diving in and out of hedonistic festival fervor. But under the surface I have been slowly and attentively working on a very precious project throughout the late hours of August. During my last trip home I absently rediscovered the family photo drawer. In the magical hour that followed in my attic I felt like Carter and Herbert with Egyptian treasure in their hands. Sifting through my bounty, the profound outlines of an old story revealed themselves and I had an idea. I hastily managed to smuggle some old albums over the border and began to work with what I had on making a book.

But not a story book of a beginning, middle and end. In fact not one with words, nor any of my own original work. Just a book of pictures compiled from forgotten leaves of glossy silver embossed with the ephemeral outline of two people’s whole lives. The story is nothing new, it is as old as our world, and these photos are as familiar as dust. But witnessing the scale of time passed in these tarnished documents made me see two people as if for the first time. Two people in love, who have been married for thirty years.

Working with photographs every day, this is the first time I have properly felt the heavy power latent in them as preservers of time. The wonder they imbue from a world forgotten, always at odds with the world in our memory. From mottled sepia, to grainy magenta, through to glossy Kodachrome. As the veneer morphs through the generations, I see a full arc of ordinary life. Breathtaking in its simplicity, the slow, painstaking milestones of life flash by in a handful of prints: school, graduation, job, marriage, house, family. All the trials cloaked in rosy vignettes, where every action is blessed with retrospect and appears loaded with coincidence ordained from the start. Peter and Marie, a young boy and girl born at separate times in separate parts of the world, liberated of responsibility and duty, are destined to swear an oath and grow into the foundations of each other as they accomplish a whole way of life together.

What may seem the bland collective portrait of Irish family life from the 70’s to the 90’s, for me, these prints reinforce a great tract of memory that would collapse into obscurity without them. More so, they are proof of something that has taken me all my years to discover: a life of my parents independent of parenthood, and independent even, of each other. That they enjoyed the same commotion and curiosity and suffered the same lessons and doubt in their many years that I do now.

But to look at the prints. Their imperfections like medals, stamped with the crumbs and fingerprints of authenticity. A testament to their delicate canvases surviving the habits of life – the fateful house move, broken picture frames and temporary shoe box housing. Old documents well thumbed, developed and fixed with chemicals of their generation. I marvel at how their personalities imprint themselves in the pictures. My father’s unerring draftsman’s hand captions the reverse of each print. My mother poses alone at sunny monuments and windswept clifftops. Her upright posture is the permanent badge of maturity beyond her years. My father, the chronicler, bears the duty of the camera. His jester-grins and joker-poses disguise his humble sincerity. Candid snapshots punctuate the collection that are as telling of a cherished intimacy as any love letter.

And the tainted pleasures: old pets, old cars, fatalistic hairstyles. Inexplicable but unforgettable clothing. Old environments changed and gone. I glimpse crucial furnishings, long discarded, from the house of my childhood. Tiles, wallpaper, cupboards, doorknobs: a map of the most familiar things on earth to a child, now novelty and forgotten. Our own private routes to camps, caves, kingdoms and our neighbors’ houses, a world as real as the imagination but as temporary as childhood. Memories float up as I sift through the prints: of car journeys, play in the garden, visitors to the house. I am reacquainted with toys we abandoned to maturity and playgrounds we have long outgrown. The bittersweet sun, that shone the same for friends no longer alive.

A catalogue of smiling nevertheless. A feature as unchanging as the colour of their eyes, impossible to disguise even in the worn prints of their childhood. Identical down the years as they are today, but without the gentle crows feet of practice that have become them so well in their maturity. The smiles of two sweethearts, freshly painted. A giddy bride and groom, shrugging off the formality of the ceremony. Two young parents, exhausted and terrified, smiling for the camera, overwhelmed with their own modest fortune. Mother and Father, a chaos of young bodies on their lap, smiling on regardless, a combination of practice and sincerity. In every frame, their smiles are the beacon of humanity while flushed porcelain faces squirm and vie for attention. Amongst the most drawn out, sordid mutiny, my parents beam the brightest, with eyes only for us: their wailing, red faced cubs. 

The infectious sillyness of early parenthood is documented well. Halloween costumes, bicycle stabilisers, inseparable toys, accumulating birthday candles, illness, bottle rockets in the garden, babysitters, dusty santa visits, the bated breath of christmas morning, a red bruise of some forgotten calamity, the compulsory bath-time, all together in my parents bed. The images conjure up the unique horror of my father’s tickling, the thrill of lapping the garden in the wheelbarrow, fresh grass in our nostrils, the anarchy of a birthday party and immeasurable hours of absorption by any utensil of interest. And behind the scenes, my mother and father entertain us and hold us together unthanked, while we plunder their peace and quiet obliviously. Our blossoming self-awareness is gradually offset by a decline in cooperation. It becomes a torment to sit us still for a picture, one figure always cut off as they make a formative escape for independence. A menu of mugs and grimaces, hardly the angelic tableau expected of early childhood.

A decade of offense. A constant din of complaint from the backseat, the clatter of a sworn feud from another room. Unending give and take. Yet I cannot imagine the sting of mixed grief as we become too headstrong to hold hands and the once abundant kisses become reluctant, when we begin the inevitable steps to shaping up to fly the nest without looking back, and only silence remains. That frustrated riddle of unrewarding sacrifice is what escapes me still in the art of parenting. If these little prints could be prefaced as anything, then they are nothing if not a testament of the hard love and unique patience of a parent.

I look at this treasure trove and marvel at me, my sisters’ and brother’s lives. How much can come from so little, how simple and universal a mystery. To have such a rare and exquisite document of our every stage, I am humbled. For my parents, I remain mute at fathoming how it must feel to review such a legacy. To have a nest of thankless piglets terrorise the safety you have earned through the trials of a career, to bounding sapling bodies that combust with size and knowledge as if over night, to eventually replace all you ever knew about the world. To have the giddy chatter replaced by conversation over phonecalls and dinners as time slows down to allow us the pleasure to recall what went by. And the greatest gift yet to come, that this will remain the same, safe and healthy, for many more years.

   Happy Anniversary Mum and Dad.  All my indebted love.   e