Photographs and Dust
Feb. 28, 2012
I applied for graduation last week. The end of my college career is in sight. I’ll be the first person in my family to get a college degree. I’m leaving UAF with a photojournalism degree. Now everyone asks me what comes next.
I’ve always taken photos. When I was a kid my mom gave me a Kodak Advantix. It’s a film camera they don’t make film for anymore. I thought it was the greatest thing ever, because it zoomed and had three settings: landscape, portrait and horizontal. It was the best camera.
Even now, I feel most at home when I’m behind my camera. I feel like I am where I am supposed to be, doing what I am supposed to do. I don’t doubt myself.
Photography has played a constant role in my life. My grandmother dedicated herself to scrapbooks. In the last years of her life, we spent hours placing photos on pages and rolling the plastic cover over them. Grandma annotated each snapshot in blue cursive. She was determined that the scrapbooks be done before she was.
I inherited that large stack of dusty books after my grandma passed away. The more recent albums are store-bought, magnetic albums with
plastic sheets. The older ones are handmade, twine-bound covers with sepia photos glued to loose pages.
Three years after I lost my grandma, my mother died.
Most of what I know about her, I know from photographs. She came in and out of my life so often I never really connected with her. I loved her and she loved me — I know that for sure. But I don’t think anyone in her life ever really knew her. I also think she knew that and wanted it that way.
I learned about my mother through photos. The pictures of her when she was young show a girl healthy and sure of herself. She grew up on the same farm I did. She’s outdoors with animals. She’s riding horses bareback. The photos faded with age, but she remains vivid. I turn the pages and she’s getting older. There’s a new awareness in her expression, a little less of a smile than everyone around her.
She became a mother at age 16. There’s pride and fear in her face. She never finished high school, but she married. There are fewer photos of her after that. Trapped in a violent marriage, she did what many women in that situation do. She turned to alcohol.
After her marriage fell apart, there’s a time in my grandma’s scrapbooks when she looks hopeful. She’s starting over again. Hope dances in her eyes. But she had started down a path from which she couldn’t find her way back. There wasn’t anything anyone could do to help her. Families dealing with an alcohol abuser often start out desperate to help. But when the problem grows intricate, when help is refused, desperation turns to anger and offers of help turn to blame.
My mother faded to the background of the photographs — always apart, always alone. Her face is darker in these photos. Deep lines crease the area around her eyes.
She drifted in and out of my life. Sometimes she was sober and energetic and ready to take on the world. She planned her “big break.” She baked amazing cakes. I remember watching her stay up all night decorating them with dot after dot of icing. When I would take one to school for a fundraiser it always got the highest bids. Mom wanted to open her own restaurant. But something always happened. And then she’d disappear.
I never confronted her when I was child. I loved her, so I defended her. When my grandma yelled at her, I yelled at my grandma. When I found my mother’s hidden bottles, I dumped them out and filled them with tea.
The night my grandmother died I finally did something. My mother had promised she wasn’t drinking anymore. When I found a bottle of Ten High in the laundry, I took it to the back yard. I slammed it against the elm tree while she watched. Then I walked away from her, too.
From then on, there were no more family photos, only the grainy mugshot that ran in the paper when she was arrested for another DUI. I saw her once more before she died. She was in a nursing home, her body devastated by liver cancer. I’ll never know for sure whether she knew I was there.
The last photo in my mother’s story is a faded portrait. It ran with the obituary I wrote for her my junior year, during my lunch break at school.
But she gave me my first camera. I like to think that she’s always with me now, judging light, investigating angles, looking through the lens to see what’s possible.