Photos and the Gift of Memories

After every holiday meal, my grandmother used to round up everyone for the annual family photo. She’d open a new disposal camera that she had picked up from Walgreens the week before, stand everybody together, and use that grandmother voice to delegate orders until we all gave satisfactory smiles. Since we only finished eating only a few moments before, this always proved to be an arduous task. Our bellies were stuffed, and our bodies were sending signals that we needed to beach ourselves on a couch and fall asleep to the melodic malaise of a Lawrence Welk rerun.

I never understood this ritual, and the only meaning I ever took from it was how much I loathed taking photos. I’d see those holiday photos on display every time we visited my grandparents, and I’d think about how many spoonfuls of mashed potatoes were packed into that belly of mine. The gluttonous guilt was enough to make an absolute decree to never capture a memory on celluloid ever again.

As much as I hate to admit it, my wife is one of the few people who can successfully get me to pose for a photo. [Photo taken by Lisa Kahlow]
My wife and I recently spent a morning helping a relative visit family members. We picked up this relative from his group home early one Saturday. We had been there a few times before, so this trip should have been routine. We’d arrive at a designated time, load up our vehicle with his bags, and make sure he had all of his medication.

Life, however, has a funny way of interfering with the mundane and ordinary sometimes. Those regular tasks that we can do in our sleep aren’t always so routine, and something we don’t normally dwell on can give birth to new perspectives on life. On this occasion, there was a new staff member working at the group home where our relative was staying. When I walked in to collect our relative’s medication, I was taken aback.

The staff member’s name was Chris, and I couldn’t help but stare at his face. He was so… familiar. When we got back to the car, that face jogged memories I had almost forgotten about.

A few years prior, I did some work for an opera house. Some of it was volunteer work; some of it was paid. During one particular show, I spent an early holiday season working on a musical called The Mystery of Edwin Drood. I was the sound engineer, so I had to manage the sound board and make sure each cast member’s mic was working properly. It was a fun gig, and it came at a time where I was in between school and gainful employment and had no idea what the future held.

The memories had almost escaped me until I saw Chris’ face again. He was a supporting actor in The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and he was someone I had to mic every weekend for over a month. We didn’t talk much, but for a brief period of time, he was part of my normal routine.

As my wife and I drove our relative, I sat in silence. Wave after wave of memories bubbled up to the surface. Feelings. Emotions. Familiar sounds. I was sitting in this car, but I was also back at the opera house behind a sound board, nervous and excited. Time was disjointed, and this moment from years prior was as real as if I was experiencing it in the here and now.

When I think of my grandmother and her poorly timed holiday photos, I wonder if this is was the whole point. When her family was spread all over the state, busy with work, school, children, etc., was this how she passed a day when she found herself alone? Could she simply look at a photograph and leap through time to a happier moment when her family was together? Would that energy, emotion, and sensation seize hold of her in the same way seeing a cast member’s face seized hold of me?

I spent a car ride silently asking myself these questions knowing full well that I’ll never get answers to any of them. If I ever want to visit with my grandparents, I’ll need to dig through a family photo album.


  • Check out my review of the stellar indie film The Eyes of My Mother for Drunk Monkeys!
  • As a bonus, I also reviewed Santa Claus Conquers the Martians as part of Drunk Monkeys‘ holiday film series.

The Eyes of My Mother Review

Santa Claus Conquers the Martians Review