Tuesday, September 15, 2009


My grandmother knows her way around a computer. She is comfortable with email and organizes her vast files of digital photos like nobody's business. I respectfully celebrate the folks of advanced age who appreciate and assimilate with the wondrous technologies our lives are blessed with these days.
Recently Gram has been scanning old photos into the safety of jpeg backups. You know, just like those boxes and boxes (and boxes!) of film prints in your closet/attic/basement containing all of your precious moments which occurred pre-digital? I am so pleased that she is taking on such a big yet immensely important project, and envy her those enchanted hours revisiting cherished memories from a well-lived life.
One daughter of this technologically savvy grandma emailed a few of the recently digitized pictures to all of her siblings, including my mother, who described it to me. Mom and her six siblings lined up in the family backyard with their parents, taken sometime in the late seventies. She explained that she distinctly remembers posing for that picture. At the time she had a couple kids of her own, and some of her sisters were also married and had started families.
My mother then proceeded to share the oddly poignant experience of realizing she is now the grandmother in our photos just like this one. Her family circa 1979 is not very different from ours in 2009, only she has graduated to the next generation. She is now about the age her mother was then, her kids are now the young parents, and she now has the slew of grandkids running around the backyard. Thankfully, this awareness doesn't make my mother sad or regretful in any way. In fact, I know she is proud of her family and I don't think she would trade being a grandma to go back to her days as Homecoming Queen at SHS. But she gained a strange, new perspective on the progression of life from exposure to this photographic recollection.
I listened politely to her explanation and even offered a supportive "uh-huh" where appropriate. Her feelings seemed logical to me, but not the foundation of any kind of epiphany. I mean, we all get older; I was a kid, now I'm a mom, one day I hope I'll be a grandma too. It's just the way it is.
And then Gram emailed more pictures. These featured her lot of young grandchildren on a trip to the zoo. At the time only 11 grandkids had graced the family scene; eventually there would be 32 (I come in at number 17--top of the second half!). One of the photos I had seen before. It had been in frames or passed around at gatherings on occasion. Here it is, showing all the kids lined up in chronological order:
My older brothers are numbers 5 and 7 from the left, and my older sister is second-from-last, in the stroller. I've always thought it's a cute picture, and especially enjoy a glimpse at the current fashions, including my oldest cousin sporting a (gasp!) bared midriff, and the utilitarian strollers.
But this next photo is the one that affected me.
In the summer of 1978 my mother (left) was 27 years old. In this photo she is just a few months younger than I am right now.
This is nearly the same scenario as what my mother described: I see that I am now the woman in that photo, pushing a stroller at the very same zoo. Except for me the poignant discovery is not so much in the realization that I have moved up a generation, as the recognition--more palpable than ever before--that my mother was once me.

She changed diapers, kissed boo-boos, and sang stupid nursery rhymes. Of course I knew she did these things; I witnessed some myself. But my mother has always seemed "older" than me. Even in this photograph where I could be a comrade standing to next to her with my own stroller, I struggle to see us as equals. This may partly be due to those waist-hugging pants that have a tendency to make anybody look 50 (no offense mom, you're gorgeous!), but even without them, my mom always looks to me like my mom. Clearly this has nothing to do with aging.

Now I am a mom, but I still feel like a kid. Well, it's not that I feel childlike, it's just that the essence of who I am and what it essentially feels like to be me has not altered much since I was literally a child. I've always been intrigued by this indescribable concept. I remember being 7 or 8 years old and feeling smart and tall. Yet I had so much to learn and so many inches to grow. And as I learned and grew, the substance of "me" expanded but I never felt taller or smarter. This is an abstract idea that is difficult to put into words. Has anybody else pondered what I am trying to convey?

So my big epiphany, gleaned from the way my reaction to this photo built upon my mother's anecdote about the other, is that she once felt like a 20-something-year-old woman with babies too. Not just did the same things that I do, but actually was the same in so many ways. Felt the same--possibly kind of like a kid herself. And now that she is older, she doesn't feel any different. And when I step into the role of grandma within my family, I will probably still feel like a kid. And I will look around and know that I am old only because of the evidence surrounding me.

A few more notes about the photo:

I left the image un-cropped because I enjoy the background setting. It's pretty special to see this crossroads near the tiger exhibit where I now take my own child, but occupied with folks sporting bell-bottoms and big plaid pants--and not because they're retro chic. I need to remember this when I'm editing my own photos: that sometimes leaving the background details visible will make a picture more precious in the future.

The other woman in the photo is my mom's older sister, heightening its similarity to dozens of pictures I have of me and my own older sister with our own babies. This adds another layer of intrigue considering how my mother and my aunt probably related in much the same way that I do to Diana. If I think about all this too long it starts to make my head spin.


Bridget said...

So, this is one of my most favoritest blog posts ever, from any blog. I totally identify with the phenomenon you're talking about. I've been going through it myself sending Miriam to preschool - I remember going to preschool, and I remember my mom sending me there. WEIRD. I loved the photos, too.

Thanks for writing this!

Anonymous said...

Well done, Kristen. Love this post...and I can also relate.

guentherfamilynews said...

I know exactly what you are talking about....
I felt so grown up at 7, but then at 17 I looked back and thought, I wasn't grown up then, but I am now. Now at 23 I have realized, I will never be grown up! lol I will always be a kid and love to have fun. Some days I think, when did I get old enough to have a 4, 3, and 1 year old... but I don't feel old, and I don't ever intend to!

Erin Curtis said...

Came here from Bridget's blog, and well . . . you nailed it. I've been feeling this same sense of reverse deja vu for some time, wondering exactly what to call it. Beautifully articulated.


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