People haunt me from the past; the mysteries of what’s become of them. When my family came to America in 1979, we didn’t document our everyday life the way we do in today’s selfie generation. We broke out the cameras for special events, birthday parties, weddings, occasional trips to the zoo, and vacations. Studying through old images, I recognize a familiar group of people reappearing in backgrounds for an entire decade of history. Upon further reflection, I realize this was a false rendition of history. We only saw those people about 5 times a year and they dominated all of our photos. It was a memory illusion.
We have amazing biological abilities to protect ourselves by blocking out bad memories. At 30, I began a slow descent into my memory banks (way before Disney’s Inside Out explained it all to me). My husband assures me “it’s all up there,” filed away neatly, and I merely need to concentrate on a memory I wish to retrieve (maybe shut my eyes tightly and get in an I Dream of Jeanie pose?) – and poof, it will reveal itself to me in a sensory explosion. He remembers every day of his life; him and Marilu Henner (only she can quote back dates quicker than he can). My husband’s visual memory should be studied by science; he regularly challenges himself to create detailed drawings of his childhood bedroom, from 35 years ago. I, on the other hand, remember my sister had balloon wallpaper and it pretty much ends there.
Old photos can be powerful triggers. I found ten color photos from my 5th birthday, the first one in America, August 1979. I tried to let the photos take me on a journey. I fanned them out in front of me, a detective on a hunt for memory stimuli. Guests, outfits, presents, food. Together, they form an 80s version of a gif file, which my mind has become more accustomed to seeing the last decade. Can I close my eyes and be at this birthday party at my grandmother’s apartment? She still lives there, but with each decade, a new coat of a paint. From cheetah fabric couches to wildflower polyester to blue leather, but it’s the same white-painted metal door. It’s the same hallways with the pungent smells; it’s the same elevator with the oily buttons.
I study these pictures with the diligence of an investigator, as if the longer I stare, the days will magically replay themselves in an encore viewing of my life. But I haven’t mastered the art of memory yet.
The story from the photos: poor 70s fashion choices, regrettable animal print couches, and Pepsi rather than Coke; I suspect because it was the Immigrants’ Cola Choice. The table, filled with at least 11 dishes and horseradish, featured foods in varying shades yellow, brown or red; no green! It also appears two seatings were offered, one for the kids and the second for the adults; though the food didn’t change. The adults would hold their cigarettes up as they hugged their kids, posing for a photo. My cake didn’t have the extra candle for good luck because we hadn’t incorporated American superstitions yet.
Energy weaves itself through explosions of patterns. I see time and evolution and genetics. My grandmother appears in photos indirectly, a reflection in a mirror as the young, agile hostess. Reunited with her daughter for the first time in almost three years, we celebrate all together in the land of the free, a cliche story. Those days we gathered to celebrate often. It didn’t matter how crowded it got around the table, there was always too much food, too much to drink, so much to celebrate – look at how far we’ve come. Early days in America, we satiated our thirst easily. My mother would later refer to these as the good ole days; we had the least, but it was all up for grabs on the road ahead.
Photos can’t predict the future; they can just pause the past.