Dad and younger son
Philosophy & Reflections

Memories Lost, Memories Created, Memories Kept – By Jim Grey

December 10, 2020

Photographs restore lost memories and anchor tenuous ones. Through them I catalog my memories and arrange them into timelines. They help me create life narratives in retrospect. But there is a time in my life from which I have few photos. I’m glad, as it is a time I don’t wish to remember.

Which is unfortunate, for my sons were small then. I have a few memories, snippets and scenes, incomplete: Helping deliver them both. Months of my first son’s colic. His first seizure, a living room full of grave firemen and paramedics caring for him, loading him into an ambulance, me racing in my car to the hospital. A family road trip to San Antonio before his first birthday, miles of gray Interstate highways, getting a speeding ticket in Texarkana, our boy sleeping most of the way. Our second baby son climbing the couch with all the steely determination of Chuck Norris chasing the bad guys. His deep misery after a tonsillectomy went wrong, me rocking him for hours while he cried, both of us sleepless. Singing to soothe them both. Making scrambled eggs for their dinner. Reading Dr. Seuss to them, one fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish. Bleak days in a deeply broken and destructive marriage, one which I lacked the courage to leave.

I have few photos from those years. My first wife was a professional photographer who made gorgeous candid photographs of our family by the score. Except for a few that she sent to my mother, after our marriage ended I never saw any of those photographs again.

I’m not sure I want to see them again. They would likely put me in touch with traumatic memories. Good therapy let me work through that awful time. No need to relive it.

We hadn’t given up hope yet in 2001. Or was it 2000? I’m guessing. The boys were young, 1 and 3, or 2 and 4. We lived a familiar but noxious pattern: something I did wasn’t good enough for her, so she’d criticize. In response I’d withdraw, which only made her criticize harder and me withdraw harder. Finally she’d pick a fight, and I’d blow my stack and off we’d go. I don’t remember whose idea it was that I get away for a while, but we agreed it was essential. I booked a cabin in the remote Tennessee woods, a week to let raw nerves settle.

I wanted to reclaim something of the man I had been, a man who had diminished and finally disappeared. I had enjoyed shooting old film cameras as a teen from a collection I began as a boy in the 1970s. I still had them all in boxes in the closet, a couple hundred at least: old folders and box cameras, a couple Polaroids, a stereo camera, a couple 35mm cameras, and too many crappy Instamatics. Most of these cameras were junk, really, but my young sons were fascinated with them. We spent many happy hours on the floor playing with them together.

Kodak Automatic 35F camera

I got out one I’d never used before, a Kodak Automatic 35F, an early-1960s 35mm viewfinder camera with an onboard selenium light meter. In those days I didn’t know an f stop from a shortstop, and this camera wasn’t as automatic as its name suggested. So I shot a test roll before I left. I am forever grateful to my then-self that I shot my sons around our yard. My older son was very interested in the camera, so I set it and handed it to him. He made two photographs of me with his younger brother. They’re terrific candid shots that remind me that there were good times for us.

Younger son in the air

My younger boy was too little to operate the camera so I have none of my older son with me. But I did make this delightful portrait of him with our next-door neighbor’s house in the background.

Older son in the grass

Most of the photos I took didn’t turn out well, as I truly didn’t know what I was doing. The best of the remaining shots is this one of them in our minivan. I hated that van, but love this memory.

Sons in the minivan

Mercifully and to everyone’s emotional health, the marriage ended. The next several years were hard in their own right: a protracted, brutal divorce followed by years of being broke paying the extensive legal bills and sky-high child support.

My cameras didn’t survive the divorce, along with most of my other possessions. I had to start all over. I wanted to rebuild my life around my sons first, but around things I enjoyed second. Remembering the fun I had using my old Kodak with my sons and on that Tennessee trip is why I started a new camera collection. I set out to collect old folders and 35mm rangefinder cameras, but when someone gave me a 35mm SLR they no longer used I found that I was born to shoot them. My collection is mostly SLRs today. I’ve used them to record the life my sons and I built together. I’ve even practiced portraiture on them a little bit.

Older son as a teenager

Nikon F2AS, 50mm f/2 AI Nikkor, Kodak T-Max 100

Younger son as a teenager

Nikon F2AS, 135mm f/3.5 AI Nikkor, Fujifilm Neopan 100 Acros

I chose not to wallow in the difficult past, but instead to move forward. To make the life I wanted, as much as I could. To be a good father to my sons and to create good memories with them. With my photographs as evidence, I’d say we succeeded.

I’ve written personal stories and essays like this on my blog for a long time. I also write a lot about film photography after a lifetime of collecting film cameras. If you’d like to read more, check out my blog at https://blog.jimgrey.net. I’m also on Facebook and Instagram.

Jim Grey's book A Place to Start

I’ve also published a book of some of my earliest stories and essays, called A Place to Start. I wrote a lot in the book about the time described in this story — I was living through it when I wrote those stories. My book is about how I pushed through those difficult days to make a better future. Writing my stories helped me make sense of all that had happened so that I could find the good again.

To learn more about my book, click here.

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12 Comments

  • Reply
    MrSnappy
    December 10, 2020 at 10:49 am

    JIm, you demonstrate great courage in sharing this powerful catharsis in the public domain. I struggle to find a better case for the value of photography (and cameras!). You are indeed, a brave man!
    Notwithstanding the variety of ‘bells and whistles’ cameras that have come my way over the decades the most abiding and treasured memories were from box cameras and ‘crappy’ instamatics. Thanks and best wishes for the future.

    • Reply
      Jim Grey
      December 10, 2020 at 5:38 pm

      They say there’s a fine line between brave and crazy. But I’ve told no real stories here on anyone but myself!

  • Reply
    Thomas Slatin
    December 10, 2020 at 2:32 pm

    “But there is a time in my life from which I have few photos. I’m glad, as it is a time I don’t wish to remember.”

    This line resonates with me deeply. For me, this time was during my high school and college years, which were quite easily the absolute worst times of my life so far.

    • Reply
      Jim Grey
      December 10, 2020 at 5:39 pm

      I’m sorry you had to go through such a time!

  • Reply
    Chris Ledda
    December 10, 2020 at 5:39 pm

    Absolutely beautiful images and story Jim. There is something truly unique and individualizing about photography, and shooting on film specifically. I can relate to you using it to help find your self again. Thank you for sharing your story!

    • Reply
      Jim Grey
      December 10, 2020 at 5:40 pm

      I’m glad it connected with you Chris!

  • Reply
    Louis Sousa
    December 11, 2020 at 3:30 am

    Jim this was a courageous and compelling story. Thank you!

    • Reply
      Jim Grey
      December 11, 2020 at 12:53 pm

      I’m happy you liked it!

  • Reply
    Omer
    December 11, 2020 at 2:41 pm

    Would it be OK to say what a pleasure it was to read this post?

    This is how art saves us. Thank you.

    • Reply
      Jim Grey
      December 11, 2020 at 4:12 pm

      I’m so pleased you experienced it that way!

  • Reply
    Aloy Anderson
    December 14, 2020 at 10:18 am

    Hello Jim, your experience triggered alot of hurtful and bad memories from my past also, actually the same time period, I got divorced in that time also and I too have basically no photos from that time, I rode motorcycles as well but that was the awkward period between film going out of style and digital being too primative and expensive so i didnt shoot anything. I think marriage can make or break you and your article talks about some deep truthful things hard to admit in public. im kinda speechless man but good job.

    • Reply
      Jim Grey
      December 14, 2020 at 2:03 pm

      Aloy, I’m sorry to have put you in contact with those hard memories. I hope your life is good now!

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