Loco Parentis: A Tangled Web

Technology is making it harder than ever to delete the past

MY DAUGHTER MARCY and her boyfriend Mario are sitting on my living room sofa, aiming her cell-phone camera at themselves. They kiss, shoot, check the image, kiss, shoot, check the image, seeking the perfect photo to post on Marcy’s Facebook page. I smile at them and head for the kitchen, passing, on my way, a white wooden cabinet that happens to be filled to bursting with yellow Kodak envelopes. Some of the envelopes are marked with a month and year on the outside, or “West Virginia Vacation,” but most of them aren’t. When Marcy and her younger brother Jake were little, I was dutiful about recording their lives in photographs, but less dutiful about organizing the results. My friend Ruth keeps her carefully selected pictures of her three boys in handsome albums, complete with where-and-when captions. Me, I just stopped taking photos when the cabinet was full.

There was a ritual aspect to snapping pictures with my old 35mm camera that even Marcy remembers fondly. You’d go to CVS, fill out the form, put your film in the envelope, drop it in the slot … and wait.

“When can we get the photos? When will they be ready?” Marcy used to natter at me. After a week or so, back we’d go to CVS, to pick up the Kodak envelopes with the photos inside. We’d pay, then stand right there in the store and take our first look, giggling together over the Girl Scout camping trip or middle-school talent show. Sufficient time had passed that the pictures evoked memories for us to point out: Remember Liz screaming at the spider in the tent? Jen tottering in high heels? And then there were the outtakes, shots with a thumb over the lens, or group red-eye, or unspeakably unflattering angles: Can that really be my butt?

 On the sofa, Marcy just deletes the bad photos, the ones that make her and Mario laugh or cringe: click, whoosh, gone forever. In a week, a month, she’ll tire of today’s perfect shot and send it into oblivion, post another in its place. She’ll never have an overstuffed white cabinet to silently nag her: Get organized!

I can see the allure in that. In the wake of my dad’s death last year, I became the caretaker of all the photos he accumulated in his lifetime, which include our old family shots, pictures from Dad’s parents, and even some from their parents, the subjects stiff and Dickensian in chin whiskers and elaborate clothes. As I try to find dry household spots in which to store this bounty, I think how much easier it would be to just click it into the ether. My lack of photo organization clearly is hereditary; the old pictures aren’t labeled. I don’t know who the people in them are. Nobody alive does. I should throw them the hell away.

I don’t, though. Instead, now and again, I page through them, searching for proof that these inscrutable, frozen-in-time lives are linked with mine. I look for glimmers of family resemblance — a tilt of a chin that foreshadows Jake, a hint of Marcy’s eyes.

AFTER DAD DIED, my three siblings and I went through his place with colored stickers, marking what we wanted for our own. My stickers were yellow. I stuck with the Episcopalian side of Dad, the mahogany drum table and Queen Anne chairs. My older sister, brisk and practical, took his Honda. My younger sister chose the local artists’ paintings he collected and the garish afghan he’d draped over his sofa, that my mom crocheted years and years ago. My brother didn’t take much of anything.

We weren’t just deciding how much clutter to add to our homes. We were editing Dad, defining him for ourselves and our kids, selecting which aspects of him we wanted to perpetuate. We were furthering our family roles: my older sister the austere pragmatist, my younger the wacky free spirit, my brother … well, he has some father issues. Me, I’m the recorder, the archivist.