I’ve been trying to find a suitable theme for February’s blog, which is already rather overdue but given the lateness of the day, decided to continue to press on with big picture themes as per my last blog and focus this month, on love and memory.
As it goes, I have undertaken to organize thousands of digital images accrued over the last decade or more (effectively a personal compendium of my family’s life since the advent of digital photography) and while my efforts have been less than consistent (or indeed in my wife’s opinion commendable), just putting my toe in that visual hinterland of images lights up my neural switchboard and throws me back into a time I can only view through a lens.
That’s the thing about digital images – they can quickly be deleted if they fail to please, retouched and even fully manipulated to retell their truth but most of all, they can be stored away silently in computers and external hard drives, nevermore to be organized into rational entities, as is the case before digital imagery became the norm. Photo albums are by their nature organized into understandable time periods because they require active engagement by the picture editor to place them in time, physical space ( i.e. the album itself) and ultimately in our memories.
Digital images by comparison with theirs teadfast but fading paper country cousins float and accrue in a sea of bits and megabytes even now floating above our heads in a nebulous cloud. It takes real determination and consistent effort to make sense of them in the triangulation of memory, love and time (or at least a bloody good app).
Recently, I had the opportunity to tap into my mother and father’s random access memories which fade into the event horizon of a past earlier than my own existence. These memories are just as uncertain and fragile, if not more so than our present digital reality. And like a hard drive on the edge of a personal meltdown, the contents need to be downloaded before the hardware fails.
My father is 83 this year, my mother 76. His hard drive is already experiencing fragmentation. Housebound by his own choices and increasingly frail, there is little to tie him to the present and in the absence of a curious son, little to activate the past he has lived. My mother on the other hand, his vigilant co-pilot, serves to fill in details in his conversations and chide his failing memory and repetitions. In the present, my father is only vaguely aware that he is in his 80s and struggles to place the year he is living in (if there is one) either. These are merely matters of detail for him though because he already enjoys the privilege of being the last man standing in his own family.
Through discussions with my parents I was able to draw a bead on grandparents and great grandparents from England, Ireland and as far afield as Hong Kong and Beijing. Their stories fascinate and engage me, even when the trail leading back into the past frustratingly peters out.
During their telling, as if awakening from a dream of the present, my father admitted that he missed his mother and father gone now long before and wasn’t even sure whether his brothers were still alive. Such is the nature of memory in old age, it seems. My mother on the other hand, ever pragmatic, placed her own family history in the practical realities of her present existence, only ever expressing regret for the death of her younger sister to cancer some 36 years ago – a loss, which I know she still feels keenly but bears quietly to this day.
Both are touched by the past; both aware of days and loved ones gone by; both aware of their impending mortality. There it is though; love, memory, loss and the ever-present threat of falling over the event horizon leaving only a hinterland of photographs, stories and long repeated anecdotes. Oral history being the richest source though, has an important place in families for all who lack the biographer to tell their stories because it ensures a kind of immortality.
I wonder how we will be able to recount our own stories to our children – will the rich media content of our lives succeed in telling them better? Will they survive better than a photo album, a written diary or a well-told story? I suspect not but in the meantime I will press on with compartmentalizing more than a decade of my family’s visual existence on earth in a hard drive and in heaven in the cloud. What happens when they pull the plug on me, I wonder?