10/18/2013 03:25 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Dazzle Your Party Guests With This Photo Display

When my daughter and I started planning her high school graduation party this spring, I asked her to tell me what she loved most about other parties she'd been to. Well, besides the friends and the food. Those were a given.

"Pictures!" she said. Lots and lots of pictures. She told me they were almost always displayed as collages on panels of poster board, and told me where I could find some.

I pretended to go along. I told her I'd do my best, but I also got permission to vary from that recipe -- and promised her she wouldn't be sorry.

She wasn't. My husband and I kept the photo display a surprise. She didn't see it until she walked into the cabin we'd rented for the occasion, minutes before the guests arrived. She burst into tears.

Here's what it looked like...


My husband had been busy in our garage for days, his handiwork unfolding behind everything else we store in there. It was the first time I'd been thankful for the clutter, which helped us keep this project a secret from Kate.

First he built two wooden boxes to house the weights from a set of barbells. He drilled a hole in the top of each box so he could anchor poles inside the holes in the weights. The poles formed the sides of the display.

Then Darrell built what amounted to a big wooden music stand to run along the bottom, where we'd display 8x10s so people wouldn't have to strain to see the photos close to the floor.

We took these elements to the cabin the night before the party to assemble everything. We strung ribbon between the poles, and we pulled the bases far enough apart to keep the ribbon taut. We took more ribbon, tied it to the tops of the poles and anchored them to a railing on either side of the display to help keep it upright.

We hung a sheer white curtain in front of the wall -- using almost invisible fishing line to keep it in place -- that disguised the burnt orange paint and kept the focus on the pictures.

Now it was time to add the photos. I'd spent days going through thousands of them to painstakingly select almost 200 that best represented Katie's childhood. I'd arranged them and rearranged them on the floor at home until I liked what I saw. I didn't want all the baby photos in one spot, or too many posed photos in a row. I was going for random -- a fireworks display of fun.

For months I'd been seeing miniature wooden clothespins on display when I'd been out shopping, and they'd inspired this tiered clothesline of memories. Suddenly everywhere I looked they were out of stock. Which is why you don't start a project of this magnitude the week before the party. I had enough time -- barely, but enough -- to call around to other stores and get what I needed.

It was worth it. When Darrell saw the very first photo hanging from the ribbon with one of those little clothespins he grinned big and told me how cute it was. When we finished we could hardly believe how well it had turned out, and when we woke up the next morning that's the first thing he said: "That photo thing is amazing."

We weren't alone in this assessment. The highlight of the party, for me, was watching the father of one of Katie's friends study it. He's an artist -- the kind who makes a living at it -- and when I sauntered over to ask him what he thought he admitted he was getting ideas.

I hadn't realized how important the display was to the success of the party. You need something to do, after all. We'd planned a bonfire but it was too windy and rainy. It didn't matter. People crowded around the photos -- looking for themselves in those, of course, but also taking in the wonder of it all. There was plenty of room for two or three groups of two or three people looking at it at the same time, and one thing I noticed was how often they came back again and again.

It had been a delight to design. Our guests kept telling me they'd never seen anything like it, and that gave me so much joy.

Isn't that what we all want? A chance to do something special with our lives? Katie's such a gift to the world. A little extra work on this photo display seemed like the least we could do. But as usual, we got back way more than we gave.