I’m sure you’ve noticed it. Today is easily confused with yesterday—or maybe it’s tomorrow. Every morning seems like Saturday—or is it Sunday? You’re hungry for dinner mid-afternoon, or not hungry at all until sometime after dark, when you want breakfast. Without the commute, book club, aerobics class, school activities, or any other mundane marker of daily life, all time has warped. It’s sensory deprivation, a Stephen King thriller, COVID Time.
Apropos of the warp and befitting a lifelong passion, I have been cataloging my life in photographs, the paper kind: cowgirl, prom date, world traveler, yoga hippie, swamp paddler, professional woman. The assemblage of real people doing real things and having real fun delineates a fascinating life. While you generally don’t realize until you are older that your life has been unique, I was blessed with the wisdom to capture its wonderful weirdness on film as I traipsed along.
Thus it was with profound respect that I hauled out my mother’s scrapbook and undertook the tedious process of transferring her memories from a portfolio of paper that disintegrated in my fingers to an archival-quality photo album. The tedious process transported me to a different time and space, much as COVID Time has done, granting me an insight into the woman I wish I knew.
Our tabby Nina seemed as fascinated with the pictures as I was. There are formal portraits of my paternal grandparents along with Dad, who was born in 1912, and his sisters. Mom and her twin brother were born in 1916, when the sartorial trend was nainsook gowns for boys and girls, with boys transitioning into frocks with box pleats and knickers. These photos are more than a hundred years old, yet they are in remarkably good shape.
Although the portraits were professionally shot, I’m sure that Gramp, my maternal grandfather, took the candid ones of my Nana and her babies with a Brownie camera. In fact, most of the pictures in the photo album were probably shot with Brownies. The original box camera sold for a dollar in 1900. According to the Brownie Camera Page, the device was the mass-marketing genius of film manufacturer George Eastman. He correctly predicted that an inexpensive camera in every home meant lots and lots of film would be sold and processed. He pretty much created the snapshot. Mom’s book is full of them.
Prior to being a harried and practical mother of six, she kicked loose, at least long enough to take a road trip with three girlfriends after graduating from nursing school. Lifelong friends, Noreen and Kay were also nurses; Rita, was a teacher. Sporting a broad grin, Rita drove what was obviously her pride and joy—a 1945-ish Chrysler. The pictures confirm what I remember of her. She bucked the shirtwaist dress style favored by Mom and the others in favor of Kathryn Hepburn–like trousers. She was always offbeat.
They drove from Connecticut to Washington, D.C, and then along Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park—routes I know well. Silly girls in hair curlers and sunglasses, they shot pictures of each other sleeping in the car, posing in front of landmarks, squinting into a mountain sun, and doing laundry in a forest cabin.
Giving equal treatment to my father’s career as a firefighter and Army Air Force sergeant in World War II, she compiled pictures of the trucks he drove—a prewar Seagrave Pumper and a postwar Seagrave Bickel Aerial as well as the airplanes he serviced while stationed in England. Writing on the back of a series of photos, he identified one plane as a BC-1A, which was nicknamed “The Duck.” He also modeled a leather fleece-lined jacket that he wore when it was cool. There’s also a hilarious photo of him sticking his head through a cut-out so that he appears to be dressed in full Scottish regalia.
With the same diligence, she compiled wedding snapshots and a honeymoon to Montreal and Quebec. She saved maps, receipts from posh hotels that cost $5 a night, even a napkin from what was probably the swankiest dinner of her life.
Then boom! The nurse and the fireman went on to raise six children. They lost more and more spontaneity with the birth of each baby, but Dad documented our childhoods with his Brownie. I wonder what happened to it. Mom probably threw it away as she did so many things. But I am so grateful she kept her collections of snapshots, and that somehow, I ended up with her photo album.
Nina agrees that reassembling it has been a good way to pass COVID Time.