Family pictures from one’s own childhood are tricky. The pictures of ourselves before we had the ability to form memories are useful only to the extent that we can say, “I have my father’s eyes,” or “I look just like my mother.” But in general, this is for others to say. What about family snapshots or movies we see years later, of events that we don’t need pictures to remember? For instance, I remember one of my birthday parties (I think it was my 7th) at which Dad hung a vinyl target on the side of the house. My friends and I lined up for a turn shooting an arrow with a suction cup on the end (it looked like the business end of a miniature toilet bowl plunger). When it was my turn, I didn’t do very well, and missed the target completely. Dad faithfully recorded the shot with his 8mm movie camera. He tracked the camera to trace the anticipated flight path of the arrow and ended up showing an empty target. Then he lowered the gaze of the camera toward the ground to show the final resting place of my suction cup arrow. A minor humiliation preserved; camera and memory in agreement about the facts of that incident.
My older brother
Mike was part of family life until I was about 10 years old. He never learned how to talk, and was diagnosed with infantile autism when he was about 3 years old; he was also found to be profoundly retarded. He never was ‘right’ according to Dad.
There aren’t that many photographs of him from back then. My parents were too busy cleaning up after him and making sure that he didn’t wander off. When I look at the photographs today, I see them in two different ways. The easiest way to see them is to look at them as ordinary photographs – the way an adult would look at pictures of a child. Mike on the swing set is a good example of this. As an adult, I see this enigmatic picture of a child. What does his expression mean? Has he just paused for a moment on the swing? What was he thinking? Was he about to say something? What did that expression on his face mean? Expressions are supposed to reveal inner emotions, if only for a fraction of a second.
The other way to look at family pictures from youth is to see them as experienced at the time. I remember that the old apple tree in the background was felled during a hurricane in 1962. I do not remember Mike looking directly at me or anyone else (with both eyes pointed in the same direction at the same time). It is so hard for me to put myself in my 7-year-old mindset and reconstruct how I must have felt. Surely, I knew Mike’s unpredictability. I don’t remember ever being afraid of him. I do remember the utter futility of my parents’ efforts to teach him anything, including how to use a spoon or fork at mealtime. I remember trying to learn patience.
Sometimes I think that if I were back at that time as an adult, maybe I could have figured out a way to reach him.