Each ring is a story in the family tree

I don’t print my digital photos anymore. I file them away in computer directories and post one occasionally on a blog. Albums with yellowing pages herniate generations of family photos from their centers. They weigh on my closet shelves and on my mind. I don’t want leave any messes for my children to clean up, but I do want to leave them stories.

 What I’m throwing away

All photos of scenery. (None of us possessed the talent of an Ansel Adams)

Faded photos and blurry snapshots

Anonymous portraits*

Photo frames & portrait folders

All pictures that are duplicates and photo strips, nameless pets and posed soubrettes*

*unless I can make up a great story about that lass with the feathers

What I’m keeping

Photos that tell stories; I’m not in the record keeping business. I’m in the story telling business.

I look at a photo of my grandmother, arm around her barefooted firstborn on Seal Beach. Nana, clothed like a proper lady, leans into spunky Leone, who gives us a glimpse of the bohemian she will become. In a later photo a much older Nana balances my somber mother on her knee, both gazing off in the distance in different directions.  If I place the photo of 15-year-old Leone holding her new baby sister into this collection it adds nuance, but it’s the photo that’s not in the collection that tells the story; the one of Nana with her two daughters that never got taken. Self-banished or repelled, I only ever saw Leone once.

Among these treasures I find what I’ve been searching for; a few photos of my great grandmother Nellie Belle. She was the model for The Sheepwalker’s Leora and the subject of my novelette, Courting Nellie Belle. I search her face for traces of her legendary strong character. It is there in the set of her shoulders and the lift of her chin.

Timelines aren’t mere records of events. Time develops like lines in a face, story lines in family relationships that fray, possibly to rethread generations later. Time isn’t captured in decoratively bordered, carefully captioned photographs in albums. It’s in the gritty stories we fashion, tell ourselves and share with each other.

Search the faces in few carefully chosen photos; then tell your stories.

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