To Gaze At the Irreplaceable

By Susan Shone

Some photos mean more than others, and for me these photos become more precious as I age. It must be the same for many people. No matter that we’re living in the age of digital everything, photos included. Physical photos in frames and albums in millions of homes are just as irreplaceable as they’ve always been.

All my life, it seems, I’ve watched news crews interview people who’ve lost their homes to some hurricane, blizzard, flood or fire. They talk about losing everything, but often start to weep only when they say that all of their photos are gone. Even when I was a youngster, I’ve always understood, at least on some level, their sadness about the photos. There’s no way to get those back, and that’s truly heartbreaking.

For me, photos started taking on a different kind of importance when the people who meant the most to me – family members – started to die. First it was my mom, who we lost twenty years ago. She was a lovely woman when she was young, and when she was older, she almost never let people take her picture. She wasn’t that old, mind you – she died shortly after turning 66. And after she was gone, my dad, sister, brother and I dearly wished she had let us take those no-frills snapshots we’d wanted to over the years. Maybe it wouldn’t have helped our grief to look at photos of her, but we surely wanted to. She thought she grew overweight and unattractive over time. To us she was always beautiful.

We lost my dad next; he died five years ago. At least he lived to be 89 before cancer took him. And happily, our dad never minded having his photo taken, so his three kids have many photos of him to hold tightly. We each have photos going back to our childhoods of Dad as a young man, endlessly patient and kind. We have photos of Dad at work, as a safety engineer for NASA during the 1960s and 1970s – some heady years for NASA, some happy years for Dad. We have photos of Dad as he aged, photos of him with us and with his grandkids. I have a photo I love of my mom and dad from back when they were dating. I enlarged and framed it; it’s in black and white, and they look so young and glamorous. I have photos of me with Dad as the little girl who adored him, as a newly minted college grad standing next to him in a cap and gown, and photos with Dad and an older me who loved him in a more appreciative way. I wouldn’t trade these photos for anything, of course, but almost everyone has photos like these. Words like “priceless” hardly do them justice.

Sometimes there’s no way you could know how important one single photo will become – one that never seemed very special before. Likewise, you couldn’t know how soon that photo will take on such significance. Within the past year, that happened to me.

It’s a photo of my brother, Mark and I, sitting together on a sofa with our arms around each other. We’ve got those posing-for-the-camera smiles on our faces, but we look happy. We also look really nice: We’re dressed up because we’re about to go out with our sister, Barb, and our parents to have Thanksgiving dinner at the Hyatt Regency in Austin, Texas. This is special, because we usually cook Thanksgiving dinner at home, but it’s even more special because none of us are youngsters anymore. I’m in my twenties and in college, coming home for holidays like Thanksgiving, but my sister and brother have their own lives, so the days of all five of us being home together for holiday dinners are over. I remember that particular Thanksgiving. To be able to spend it with my brother, and sister, too – the whole family together – wow, I was on cloud nine.

I kept that photo of Mark and me in a photo album for decades, from the time it was taken until just about a month or so ago. I got it out so I could frame it; shortly after that, I decided my sister Barb should have a copy of it. I made a copy of the print and placed it carefully in its envelope, between two thin pieces of cardboard, and mailed it to Barb, who still lives in Austin. I stuck three stamps on it, probably going overboard. It was important to me to take so much care.

This past May, we found out my brother had cancer. It was untreatable, and it was late-stage. He was only 58 and had been active all his life, but there was nothing anybody could do. Last July, on the 22nd, Mark died. Sometimes it’s still hard to believe he’s gone.

We have photos, though – my sister and I have lots of photos of Mark. Mark as a happy little boy, Mark as a handsome young man, Mark as a happily married man with a son and stepdaughter he loved and who loved him back. We cherish all those photos now.

My sister never had that photo of Mark and me on the sofa that Thanksgiving day, and when I told her about it and told her I wanted to send her a copy, she jumped at the idea. I’m not sure I can remember a time when putting something in the mail made me feel that good.

Take good care of your treasured photos, and love the people in them as fully as you can. You all deserve it.

About this writer

  • Susan Shone Susan Shone is a freelance writer from Texas currently living in Virginia. She plans to return to the Sunbelt when the real estate market improves.

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4 Responses to “To Gaze At the Irreplaceable”

  1. Rita Joyce says:

    Susan, I love your article. I too am a collector of pictures. I have multitudes of albums, pics on my walls and mantle and pics in plastic containers. Every now and then I go back and reflect on the memories, especially of those who have passed on. Thanks for sharing!

    • Susan Shone says:

      Thank you, Rita, for your kind words. I’m so glad you liked this essay. I very much hope I get to read something that you’ve written in the future! You can do it.

  2. alice says:

    Susan,

    This piece is lovely.
    As soon as my tears dry, I’m going to send it to my sister who lost her husband in September.

    Thanks for sharing it.

    your neighbor (Julep’s mom)

    • Susan Shone says:

      Alice,

      Thank you so much for leaving this comment. It made me feel like a million dollars to read that you thought enough of my essay to share it with your sister (I know how dear your sisters are to you).

      I’ll bet you’re a fantastic English teacher. Thanks again, not only for your comment but for all the kindness you’ve shown me over the years.

      Susan

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