Growing up, my mother had a long formal coffee table with four drawers that sat in our living room. Within those drawers were hundreds of photos, slides, and albums of my mother’s childhood, teenage years, and even our family’s early adventures. For as long as I can remember, that coffee table was a treasure chest filled with precious tidbits of my mother that were long past. I would spend hours pulling photos out of those dark wood drawers: modeling composites of my mom in her early 20s, snapshots of her with friends and even home photos with her own family. My childhood imagination created stories around the memories that those photos held, a fiction version of a mother’s past.
I wish now that I had found out the real stories behind so many of those photographs. I wish I had asked more questions about the time she lived in New Orleans or how long she and my father dated. You always think you will have plenty of time to ask those silly things- until you don’t.
I have precious few of my mother’s things now. When she died many of her possessions were sold to pay off the debt from her cancer treatment or given away by the executor of her will. A few years later a hurricane tore open the roof to the sole storage unit I had, filled with the few possessions left of my mother and father. The rain and flooding ruined all of the antique furniture, and what the water didn’t destroy the mold did. I salvaged what I could- a mirror here, a box or two there. Stacks of those photos from that old coffee table were ruined, soaked and destroyed by the flooding that kept anyone out of the unit for days. A few were saved: my mother’s charcoal portrait, her wedding photos, and our family portraits when I was a baby.
Those rescued photos are hung in my home now, and some days seeing them up there hurts. Those photos remind me that I will never get answers to unasked questions, that I will never get to replace those old frames with updated family snapshots. It would be easy to take them off the wall, stack them in the back of a closet and turn off the memories. Keeping those photos hidden might stifle some of the thoughts that cause me to dash away tears, or keep away those nights of loneliness that creep up. But in hiding away those photos, would I be dishonoring the loving trust my mother gave to me all those years ago? She believed that a child would find meaning and joy in photos of the past. The old pictures in my home help me appreciate the lessons my parents taught, and learn from their mistakes in the process. It’s a bittersweet feeling to look around and see a remnant of my mother here, a memory of my father there. There is always the pang of loss, but there is also the pride in being their daughter even when they aren’t on this to earth to see it.
Like those photos in my mother’s old coffee table, our past tells a story about who we were and what we experienced. There is joy, loss, celebration, and many moments in between that help us grow into who we are today. The 16 years of family photos that I do have tell a story that was cut short unexpectedly, but a story nonetheless. Those photos help remind me of my father’s laugh or the way my mother looked at me when she was proud. Those moments are part of who I am, the memories part of who I have become. I choose to remember, to look back in order to move forward. I am reminded to create my own stories, my own photo memories in the process so that perhaps one day I will stop and look back and see a life well lived, well loved, and well told- grief and joy together framed side by side over time.
Photos by Justin James Photography
This article was originally written by Michelle for The WARM Place, a nonprofit 501(c)(3) agency based on Fort Worth, TX that provides bi-weekly peer-support groups for children and their families after the death of a loved one. Founded in 1989 The WARM Place has companioned over 30,000 children and their families along their grief journey.