I wish I'd taken more pictures.
Of all the thoughts that swirled as I watched my younger son graduate from high school last week, that's one I would not have predicted. It's also the one that stuck.
To reach our seats on the football field, we parents strolled past a wall filled with photos. There had been a note sent home weeks earlier asking for two 8x10s of each graduate -- one as a youngster and the other as a young adult. Members of the PTA had been hard at work for days putting those on poster board and attaching them to the chain link fence. Our high school is small, and I had known most of these kids since kindergarten, so the memories brought smiles as I made my way to the bleachers. But there were no photos of my son. Because I hadn't taken enough of them.
Finding a "before" would not have been a problem; Alex's relationship with the lens had been different when he was small. My very talented father-in-law was always on hand back then, and I happily left it to him to be his grandson's personal paparazzo. At the time, that was also fine with Alex.
But then his grandfather moved away, and the No Photographs stage dawned. Try to take his picture and you'd usually be answered with a glare, or a clown face, or a hand in front of his eyes. In part this was the usual awkwardness of adolescence and the run-of-the-mill embarrassment of being focussed upon. In part it was particular to Alex and his own quirky objection to making a fuss out of the commonplace and ordinary. Make it a big deal and it becomes a big deal, he seemed to believe. By observing me, you change me. It was his own personal version of the Heisenberg Principle.
I would have argued more, but his discomfort resonated. I'd had that same feeling whenever my father took out his Canon SLR all through my childhood (I finally convinced Dad not to use a flash in white table restaurants when I was an adult), and I still squirm at the thought of having my picture taken today.
So I put my camera away. After that there were only sporadic pictures, with the notable exception of one spate during his first summer away. I knew I would be one of those parents who rabidly checked the camp website for photos, so I offered him $1 each time I saw his face in a shot. (He made $62 that summer, and I later learned he'd offered the photographer a cut...)
To stop bugging him about photos was one of the many parenting decisions that struck me as a choice between honoring their autonomy now (do I force a kid to pose if he insists on privacy?) vs. guessing whether they will see things differently in the future (would he be grateful if I went ahead and overrode him? He'd have the keepsakes, yes, but would he cherish the memories or resent them? And, more practically, how do you make a child smile naturally when he is glaring at you?)
Two things happened over the years that you would have thought might change my mind. First, my in-laws' home was gutted by fire, and nearly all their photographs were lost. A lifetime of lovingly curated memories that were now just... memories. Then my father passed away and his mountains of slide trays moved into my house. I don't even own a projector on which to view them, but sometimes when insomnia struck I would open a box randomly and hold each slide to the light. I looked ridiculous in most of them, my father was in almost none -- he had been behind the camera -- but still they summoned him for me and brought comfort and I cherish every one.
Can you persuade a teenager that one day he will be an adult who feels differently? Should you try? Can you capture the past in pixels? What exactly is lost when photos are never taken, or go up in smoke?
After each of my losses, I bought a new camera (I never could manage to find the old one) and vowed to use it. That lasted through a vacation or two, but then met resistance in Alex's scowls.
When the PTA letter came, I didn't answer it. I knew we had nothing for the "after." I hadn't bothered to order the ones taken for the senior yearbook, because he'd looked so uncomfortable in every one. And while there were a few that might have been useable from my last big birthday party, and maybe one I could have cut his date out of the one at the prom, the effort made no sense. Alex really had no interest in seeing his face on the fence.
Then pomp and circumstance began, and it was, well, picture perfect. I zoomed my lens and did my best to find him in the crowd of students. I watched through a viewfinder as he was handed his diploma, and I timed my final shot perfectly, snapping just as a sea of electric blue caps with gold tassels soared into the air. At the end I climbed down from the bleachers, past the line of parents untying their children's photos from the fence, and I found my son. First I hugged him. Then I took his picture. And he smiled.