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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.