When I was a little kid I used to sit for hours in my mom’s old bedroom in my grandparents’ house, at the foot of a dresser that is now in my own guest room, and look at old pictures. The bottom two drawers of that dresser were full to overflowing with photographs, and I would pull out a huge handful at a time, stack them up and look at each one carefully, identifying familiar faces and setting aside any I didn’t recognize. After a stack was complete I would repeat the process until the drawer was empty, and then I would put all the pictures back, minus the ones I had questions about, close the drawers carefully, and slowly emerge from the dreamlike state I found myself in every time I revisited those images.
Of the hundreds of photos my grandmother–her name was Norma Jean–had accumulated, my very favorites were taken at a family reunion when my mom was a small child and my grandparents and all my great aunts and uncles were young with little kids and teenagers and unlined faces. A photographer had been hired to take professional photos that year, and the pictures ranged from a group photo of the whole family, over 100 people total, to individual families with babies and one much-loved dog. Each crisp black and white image was printed on thick 8×10 paper, and there were about 20 different photos in all. I would spread them out like a carpet on the floor and stare at them until I memorized what everyone was wearing, each expression, every hand placement and head tilt. Nearly 30 years later I can still picture each one when I close my eyes. I could describe them to you blindfolded.
I don’t know why those particular reunion photos were so captivating to me. Norma Jean’s family was large–she was one of 12 children (13 if you count the brother who died before she was born), and most of them lived within a 20 mile radius when I was a kid, so there was no shortage of picnics and reunions and other events that were well attended by our large family, and well-documented in pictures. My theory is that by the time I was old enough to dig through those pictures, there were so many cousins–firsts and seconds and thirds–and divorces and remarriages and even some deaths, so seeing the family in its basic form was fascinating to me: my grandmother’s parents, their 12 adult children and their spouses, and their children, posing for a simple photograph.
I always wondered what made that reunion so special that it warranted the hiring of a professional photographer. For as long as I can remember, there were reunions yearly, at the same place, Dry Hill Community Center, around the same time each year. In all my years of family reunion attendance, I never found myself the subject of a professional photographer. I had come across plenty of photos from other years’ reunions, snapshots and candids and loosely assembled group photos; herds of teenaged cousins, my mom and aunt and uncle among them; dozens of pictures of cakes and casseroles and piles of dinner rolls and cornbread; pictures of old portraits, gravesites, heirlooms spread out on folding tables. But that particular year someone came with a fancy camera bag and a tripod and lined everyone up with my great-grandparents–Granny and Woody–at the center, men in the back, one row of ladies standing in front of them, another row seated on either side of Granny and Woody, and kids piled on the floor at their feet. They are all wearing their Sunday best, down to the smallest baby, my second cousin Rennie, barely 6 months old and sprawled on my great-aunt Shirley’s lap. My mom is holding her dachshund Ginger, and the dog is looking dead at Norma Jean, whose face is frozen in what looks like a scold, and I can’t decide if she’s fussing at the dog, or telling my 16 month-old uncle on her lap to look at the camera. The moment is palpable to me. I can hear the shuffling of children’s feet, the fan in the window, the pop of the flash, the sound of mothers shushing their squirming kids. I can practically smell the green bean casserole and fried chicken and banana pudding. I can sense the before and after. If I concentrate very hard I can almost place myself in that moment. That is how strong a pull I have always felt when I look at that picture. It was as close to time travel as I could get in my lifetime. Or so I thought.
When Norma Jean died in 2007 I took as many of her photos as I could get my hands on, plus a big box of VHS tapes with her familiar scrawl on every label, and shoved them all into a closet where they sat untouched until I moved two years later. When I was unpacking boxes in my new house I discovered a videotape among her things with the words “1959 Reunion ” scribbled on a list of several events that she had documented, more than likely with her enormous video camera that nearly landed my college roommate on a watch list in London in 1994 after we left it unattended on a bus en route to Gatwick Airport. I moved twice with that tape. I even watched it once a few years ago with my mom and sisters and my best friend Ingrid, who also happens to be one of the many cousins borne of our huge family–but it would be a few more years before I experienced the full effect of its contents.
The first 45 minutes of the videotape are from what I believe to be Norma Jean’s 60th birthday. Some of her siblings–there were lots of them, remember–and some people from church had a little party for her. The footage is chaotic: the camera operator was unsteady, to say the least, and there is so much talking. Everyone is talking. There are a few blocks of time when the camera is pointed at a lamp or the ceiling, and still, the laughter and conversation are deafening. Watching it is like putting on my grandmother’s old sweater that hangs in my writing nook: it doesn’t fit right, and it doesn’t smell like her anymore, but wearing it makes me remember her fondly and miss her being here to wear that sweater herself. But nothing earth-shattering, no heart-pounding emotional displacement. She died 12 years after that video was taken–had been gone just over two years when I watched it for the first time–and I remembered her that way, the way she was at her 60th birthday party. We spent time together that year, and the years that followed, and I had memories of her that looked and sounded a lot like that footage. Seeing her on the screen evokes an ache of sadness, sure. But it doesn’t floor me with emotion or transport me to another time. It just makes me miss my grandma.
But then out of nowhere the screen goes fuzzy, and then turns blue, and then suddenly there is the loud, tinny sound of my great-grandfather playing the banjo he made himself, and on my television is a black-and-white silent movie taken at the reunion from my treasured photos. There are my great-grandparents. There is my funny Uncle Blane, in his mid-20s, making the face I saw him make every day of my childhood. There is beautiful long-limbed Paulette holding a diaper-clad baby Rennie. There is Uncle Jimmy, hands shoved deep into his pockets, looking a little grumpy. Uncle Cleve’s wife Stella is talking to Uncle Howard’s wife Mary. There is lovely Aunt Selda, and everyone’s favorite Aunt Eva, and a very pregnant Aunt Beaulah, and Aunt Shirley, whose walk I would know anywhere. And there, as if she just stepped out of those photos I spent so many hours studying, is my grandmother. She ducks and waves the camera operator away. He follows her, and she makes a face I saw her make a thousand times over the course of my life. But never on her 26 year-old face. This is the place I’ve been skirting in my subconscious as I looked at those professional photos my entire life, the before/after moments I have felt so strongly, playing out here before my eyes, simultaneously foreign and as familiar to me as my own reflection.
The year is 1959. My grandparents had just moved “back home” to West Virginia from Southern California. My mother was not quite four years old. She and her sister, my aunt Karen, are running around in matching outfits with matching DIY haircuts. Only 13 months apart in age, it might be hard to tell them apart on this grainy film if not for Karen’s height, several inches taller than my mom even then. Their baby brother Jeff looks hauntingly like my now 2-year-old son. At one point Norma Jean motions to him as he toddles away, a gesture so familiar to me that I hear myself gasp. And when my grandfather emerges from the trees along the dirt road where he had probably just parked their car, he is breathtaking. His hands are loose in his pockets. He does not merely walk, he strolls cooly toward the camera. There is a hint of a swagger. He looks like a movie star. He steps into the frame and puts his arm around Norma Jean and they walk a little together, and then there are the five of them, hugging and smiling and waving at the camera, a family. My family, as I have never before seen them, and yet, as I have known them my whole life through photographs that, in the moment I am watching on my screen, have not even been taken yet.
The first time I read, and later watched, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, I felt like J.K. Rowling must have understood the longing and fascination that gripped me whenever I looked at those old photos. In the novel Harry finds, upon entering the magical world for the first time, that photographs are not still like those in the muggle world–that the subjects smile and wave and move around within their little frames and borders. At the end of that first story, as he is boarding the train to go back to London and suffer through another Dursley summer, Hagrid gives him a little leather album. In the film adaptation, we only see the first page, where Hagrid has mounted a photo of Harry as a baby in the arms of his now deceased parents. They are hugging Harry, and each other, and everyone is laughing and happy. Harry’s mother makes his small chubby hand wave, and while we know in our minds they are focused on a photographer holding a camera, we can almost believe they are looking at future Harry. Future Harry can almost believe it, too. There are several other moments throughout the film franchise where Harry takes out that photo, and other old pictures of his parents and friends, and stares at them. His face conveys palpable emotion. Two emotions, specifically: fascination and longing. I know them firsthand.
I have to confess that even into adulthood I never really thought about that family reunion happening in a particular calendar year. I mean, of course I knew cognitively that it occurred on a particular date, but it superseded the confinements of time for me. It felt timeless because I somehow felt like I could go there whenever I wanted. Like those photos were some kind of portal to a moment that was always happening. I didn’t think the effect could be any stronger–and then a few months ago, while visiting Ingrid with my own little family, we watched the video together late one night, and something about that grainy five minutes of 57-year-old reunion footage took hold of me in a totally unexpected way. I couldn’t stop watching it. I rewound back to the spot just before Norma Jean first appears on the screen and recorded it with my phone as it played, from her attempt to duck and run from the camera, until the five of them were no longer waving at me from 50 years ago, like Lily and James Potter waving at Harry from a previous decade. It took great restraint not to wave back as the camera cut to a wide pan of the food table.
Seven years ago some of my cousins and I, including Ingrid, whose mom was Norma Jean’s niece and one of the greatest friendships of her lifetime, started a Facebook group for our huge family, and we used that group to plan an actual reunion. At that event, 41 years after the 1959 reunion, another of my grandmother’s nieces, Margie, who was younger by only a few years, called me my grandmother’s name the entire day. “There’s Little Norma Jean,” she kept saying every time our paths crossed. “Lord have mercy,” she said as I ducked into the picnic shelter from the hot August sun, “I would have sworn you were my Norma coming in here.” Sometimes even now she will leave a comment on one of my Facebook photos that says, “You look so much like Norma Jean.” She does this to Ingrid as well; her mom died a few years ago, and their resemblance is striking, and so I figured maybe Margie thought I was my mother, or that she was just being kind; I’d never really thought there was a resemblance between my grandmother and me.
I was 37 when I married my husband, love of my life, father of my children, and the only person I can imagine growing old with. He loves and adores me in ways I never knew possible. Being with him has made me look at myself more closely–made me notice things about myself, the way I move and talk and look, that never even occurred to me. Early in our relationship he started taking random pictures of me: without a word he will pull out his phone and snap a picture of me sitting across from him at a restaurant or leaning in a doorway or stretched out on our bed reading, or he will video a few seconds of me talking or cooking or playing with our kids. I recoiled at first, because I prefer the viewfinder of the camera over the lens, but he was not deterred, and so I stopped resisting, and then I became curious. I found myself asking to see the images he collected. I started studying these photos of myself–photos of a mom laughing with her kids, a wife caring for her family, a woman in good health with decent taste and a healthy body who is mostly comfortable in her own skin. “Is this…what I really look like?” I asked him once, and he looked at me strangely. “Yes,” he said hesitantly. “Those are actual pictures of you.” Of course I knew this, but aside from canned teacher yearbook photos, the occasional candid shot of me with my sisters, and a handful of pictures I took with the camera timer of my daughter and me, there weren’t a lot of photographs of me as an adult.
And then suddenly there were. My husband’s snapshots, and then engagement photos and wedding portraits and reception candids, and then family portrait sessions and holiday pictures after the Christmas Eve service at church and iPhone shots in our living room and driveway and backyard. I even started taking a few myself–at dinner with friends, on the couch with my son, having ice cream with my daughter, on the beach with my bestie, and pretty much every time my husband and I squeezed a date night into our schedule. Had you asked me to conjure a picture of myself before I met my husband, I would have immediately imagined the photo someone took of me at age 5 with a deer in some wildlife park, or the only photo from my teenage years I ever liked, taken unbeknownst to me by my high school best friend. But I don’t look like that anymore, and until a few years ago, I had no idea what image a camera pointed at me truly captured. The face we see in our mirrors every morning never changes to us. Sometimes we have to look at ourselves through someone else’s lens to really see ourselves. My husband provided me with that lens, and as it turns out, the person I saw when I studied myself in his pictures looked a lot like Norma Jean.
If I showed you a series of photographs of the women in my family at different ages, from Norma Jean all the way down to my own nine-year-old daughter, you would point out numerous immediately obvious similarities. Even venturing outside our immediate family into the scores of aunts and first, second, and third cousins, there is a sameness. Lots of dark hair and brown eyes and high cheekbones. No doubt there is a unified family resemblance. But the mind is weird place, and it organizes information in odd ways sometimes. Norma Jean was only 41 when I was born, and the image of her that comes immediately to mind when I think about her is from that time and beyond, so even though she was quite young throughout my childhood, she always looks like a grandma in my memory–because that is who she was to me. No amount of flipping through old photos could alter this reality. Additionally, when I place myself in a memory with her, I am a kid, even if I’m 19 or 24 or 30 in the memory. She was part of all my best childhood experiences, so much so that even when I spent time with her as an adult, I never thought of myself that way. My brain could not make me be anything but a child leaning into her embrace, and so we remained, even after her passing, a fixed image in my mind: a grandmother and her little granddaughter. They are family, but glance at a photo of them and they do not look alike.
That is the trap of the still image: our memory doesn’t hold, and so it becomes defined by this one fixed moment we have left of the baby’s first birthday, or the last day of school, or the family reunion. We forget what his voice sounded like, the way her perfume stayed on your skin after she hugged you, the feel of the breeze coming in through the church windows on Wednesday nights. I think of the phrase “frozen in time,” and I realize it’s a euphemism I dislike. It implies an absence of movement, devoid of life and energy. Pictures–real and mental–signify so much more than what they get boiled down to, but we are ill-equipped to maintain our hold on on all of it, and so we are left with these frozen things. We remember there was something happening right before, right after, someone else was there, it was so hot, or maybe it was cold, where were we going all dressed up, oh, I don’t know but look how young we all look. We crave a longer glimpse, we long to step into that moment again, but we can’t quite keep it in focus. We take pictures to remember, but we are forgetful, or perhaps we are simply limited, like a hard drive, and the act of life moving forward condenses our files into more manageable bundles, and this feels a lot like forgetting.
You might say I forgot that once, a long time ago, Norma Jean was like me: a young mom with a handsome husband, calling her kids close to her at a family gathering to wave at a camera. You might say this is impossible, my forgetting; after all, I have gone on for several paragraphs about those mesmerizing reunion photos. Clearly I can look at them and see with my own eyes that she has not always looked like my grandmother. Ah, but those pictures were not of my memories, they were of hers. Looking at those pictures are part of my memories, but by then she had already become the picture I have in my head even now. There is such a powerful disconnect. It is the reason children look at old photographs of their parents and cannot recognize them, and it is the reason I never thought I looked like this woman whose hands helped raised me, whose face I saw every day of my life for almost 10 straight years until we moved away, whose voice I barely went a day without hearing. And then something magical happened: my husband showed me myself, literally and figuratively, and I watched the clip of Norma Jean from the 1959 family reunion through this new lens, and suddenly I could not unsee how like her I am. It is in the way she tries to move out of the view of the camera. It is in the way she motions for her toddler to come back in her direction. It is in the way she is trying not to smile too much, or too little, and in the way she leans in to my grandfather and waves at the camera. It is the way she walks. It is the shape of her face. It is the almost severe line of her cheekbones and the point of her chin. It dawns on me (again) that J.K Rowling must really get this thing I’ve stumbled upon–this realization that a still photo can only give us that one moment, but we ache for the magic of seeing that moment, and all the before and after moments, happening again and again, like they are occurring forever, again and again, just for us. When I study this little recording on my phone, I feel like I’ve tapped into such magic, like I’m actually holding Harry’s magical photo album: I look at my family waving at me from five decades ago, at my grandmother’s face so like my face, her mannerisms so familiar not just because they are hers, but also because they are mine, and I can almost believe she really is waving right at me.
In a bin in my home office, high up on a shelf, is a Kroger bag filled with VHS tapes. They are labeled in Norma Jean’s hand, and they span about six or seven years–roughly the life of that cumbersome video camera she loved. Back when I owned a VCR I watched all of those tapes, revisited the memories they had preserved: my cousins and me opening Christmas presents; high school proms and graduations and football games; my grandmother and her sisters and nieces and brothers and cousins singing old hymns; church picnics and birthdays and several recorded-from-TV country music videos (she was partial to Billy Ray Cyrus and may have been solely responsible for the success of “Achy Breaky Heart”). I was in most of these videos; I remembered them all, some more vividly than others. But none of them will ever hold a candle to the 1959 reunion footage. I look at the clip I recorded on my phone almost daily, and even though some algorithm Steve Jobs probably created files it automatically in the “videos” folder, it is nothing short of a magical photograph to me. It brought Norma Jean back to life for me like no picture ever could, and made me feel connected to her in a way that watching old birthday and Christmas videos couldn’t possibly do. It made me see her in another time. It made me see myself in this time. There is magic in the silence, in the movement, in the brevity of the clip. There is magic in knowing there is no soundtrack, no conversation, no plot–there is just this moment set in motion, a literal moving picture of these people I love before I existed to love them, a glimpse of this woman who would define me, not just in the way she was my grandmother, but in the way she existed in her world. I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror and it might as well be 1959: I cannot tell us apart.