The Weight of Old Photographs

Photo provided by Kristen Martin

Photo provided by Kristen Martin


Flipping through old photo albums recently, I paused at one particular shot of my parents and was struck by how alive they look. They are young here, happy here. They’re hosting a party at the first apartment they ever shared, a two-bedroom in Rockville Centre, Long Island. It must be the end of summer, because Mom’s Italian-American skin is tanned to a deep olive and Dad’s Irish-Italian-American skin is pinker than his Ralph Lauren polo. To me, it seems that they are sharing a chair at the head of their glass-topped dining room table, squeezing in tight for the camera. The flash makes everything glow a bit, from Mom’s trademark oversized button-down shirt to Dad’s watch to their Solo cups of beer to the glass ashtray that always sat in front of Mom’s place at the table.

This is one of the earliest pictures of my parents together—it dates back to 1984, the year before they got married, two years before my brother John was born, five years before I was born. They were simply Robert and Amelia then—though it would be more accurate to call them Bobby and Amelia, because that’s how they talked about themselves. Amelia would have been 32 and Bobby would have been 31.

I’m drawn to the album that contains this photo because it takes on a heartbreaking and pressing weight for me. The images within it contrast so sharply with my last memories of my parents: Less than 20 years after Bobby and Amelia squeezed into one dining room chair for that picture in which they look so alive, they were both dead.

Though Bobby was the first one to get sick, and though he wished for the sake of my brother and I that if we had to lose one parent, it would not be our mother, Amelia died first, in January of 2002. She was 49. The ashtray that sat in front of her in that 1984 photograph—with one cigarette butted out and another one freshly lit—takes on a painful weight when I look at it now. She found out she had advanced stage lung cancer just six months before she died. The chemotherapy and radiation dulled her olive skin and took away her thick, dark brown hair. The last time I saw her in the hospital she looked not like the radiant woman I had always known as Mom, but like a fragile, much older person, tiny in her bed, her head naked and her lips cracked and dry from the oxygen mask. 

Dad died exactly two years and two weeks after Mom, in January of 2004. He was 50. There are no hints of what killed him in that 1984 photograph—he died of prostate cancer. He was diagnosed in April 1997, but after a year of treatment and surgery, the cancer went largely into remission. It was in June of 2001, when Mom was ill with the chronic bronchitis that led to her cancer diagnosis, that Dad’s cancer came back. And it got steadily worse after Mom died. When I look at the pictures from his 50th birthday—just seven months before he died—the baby-fine white hair that was just covering his skull and the sallowness of his skin make him look more like 70 than 50. Now I wonder how I ever could have believed that the cancer would not kill him.

I often find myself leafing through this album, which covers Bobby and Amelia’s engagement period, on the anniversaries of my parents’ deaths. Some of the photos are sweet to the point of lovey-dovey goofiness: it seems that Bobby and Amelia were always trying to catch one another off-guard, capture the most mundane moments, preserve one another in essence. There is a photograph of Bobby hopping on one foot, pulling on his sneaker, smiling broadly. There is a photograph of Amelia stirring something (marinara?) in a saucepan, looking up at the camera; her mouth is paused mid-word, as though she’s telling Bobby to put the camera down, but her lips are turned up at the corners—she’s playing along.

Aesthetically speaking, these are awful photographs—the lighting is harsh in most, and out-of-focus objects often clutter the foreground. This album would not exist in the digital camera age; the photos would have been deleted, reframed and reshot, and a more attractive record of life would have been preserved. Despite this, or perhaps because of this, this album of my parents is my favorite. It allows me a glimpse into what their lives were like pre-marriage, pre-children. I can flip through and get a sense of the everyday: what they drank, what they ate, what newspapers they read, how they decorated, how they looked at one another. I can encounter my parents as I was never able to know them: outside their family roles. Once my brother John and I were born, the photographic record of my parents’ lives shifted gears—the focus of subsequent albums is not Bobby and Amelia but John and Kristen. Bobby and Amelia appear on some album pages, but only as Mom and Dad—that is, only in relation to their children.

I can never know my parents in old age—they are forever frozen for me at 49, at 50, and those last images of them ill will always be their final entries in the photo album of my mind. As we grow older, our relationships with our parents change. They become less our caretakers and more our equals once we reach adulthood—it becomes easier to see them as individuals, not just Mom and Dad. But because I was just 12 when Mom died and 14 when Dad died, and I never got to experience that shift, will never get to experience it.  

Knowing all of this makes these old photographs of my parents before they were my parents take on a new urgency. If I can’t know what they would be like now in their sixties, and years from now in their eighties—if I can’t know what my relationship with them would be like now that I am an adult myself—I can attempt to understand who they were as people separate from their relationship to me and my brother.

I can delve into the archives they left behind, into these photographs. I can track consistencies and inconsistencies. Mom wore her makeup the same then as she did when I was a child, lots of black mascara and rosy blush on the apples of her cheeks. And she smoked Marlboro Reds then, too, same as ever—I remember taking the cigarette packs from her purse and flipping them open and closed, open and closed. But Mom used to smile more for the camera back then; once John and I were around she never wanted her picture taken. Does that mean they were more in love then? That she was happier then?

Dad always read The Daily News. The stacks of newspapers next to his recliner in that Rockville Centre apartment are just as they were in our house in West Hempstead. But then I learn that Dad drank Gordon’s gin and tonics. I can only ever remember him sipping beer when I was a kid. And he didn’t cover up at the beach back then, with baseball caps and t-shirts, and towels draped over his legs as he always did when we went to Cape Cod on vacation. Why did he stop drinking hard liquor and sunbathing? What was he afraid of?

These photographs cannot answer the questions they raise. Photographs are, by definition, framed. When you focus the viewfinder, you leave everything outside the rectangle out. When you capture a moment in time, you leave out what happened before and what happened after. I am left with an incomplete record, which I can only attempt to flesh out more fully.  I can cross-reference with other records from their archives—birth certificates, baptismal certificates, report cards, passports, greeting cards, letters. I can ask my aunts and uncles about the photographs and about what my parents were like outside of their parental roles, but I never know if I am getting the full story—if my parents would agree with their perspectives. Even if my parents were still around, I don’t know how they would represent those times to me.

My relationship to my parents’ past is asymptotic: I can get closer and closer to knowing my parents but never reach them as they were. But still, I continue to search, to write into the holes in the story that have come to stand for the void that loss has created in my life, because I can’t let go of what I have left.

Kristen Martin is currently pursuing an MFA in nonfiction writing at Columbia University, where she is at work on a collection of essays on her parents’ lives and deaths, and where she teaches University Writing. Her personal essays have been published in Guernica, The Toast, Saveur, The Pennsylvania Gazette, Cleaver Magazine, and elsewhere. Follow her on Twitter @kwistent.