Picture frames as family time capsules

Posted Feb. 27, 2011, at 5:43 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 27, 2011, at 8:21 p.m.

On the table next to our front door is a 4-by-6 foot frame that holds a picture of Lindell, 11 months old, sitting for the first time on the beach in Pensacola, Fla. He is holding up his right hand to inspect the white grains of sand between his pudgy fingers.

This image is hardly representative of Lindell now. He’s more likely to moon me on the beach than sit for a posed photograph. Still, I keep the picture, in that particular frame, where it will stay for many years to come.

If you open the back of the frame — indeed, if you open the back of any frame in my house — a stack of older photographs will spill out. Even as I replace images by covering them up with newer ones, I almost never remove them entirely. I cannot bear to.

Behind the picture of Lindell on the beach are probably six or seven other pictures: of Owen as a baby, then Ford as a baby, and maybe even one from our wedding day. In this way, decorative frames are Smiley family time capsules.

Of course, this result has been mostly unexpected and unintended. Pictures stack up behind newer pictures because I do not have the emotional strength to remove them. (What do you do with a photograph you once treasured enough to frame? Do you put it in a shoebox with all the other photographs, the ones you didn’t think to frame before?)

On a wall across from the picture of Lindell is a long, vertical frame with three openings. Since 2005, it has showcased portraits of Ford, then 4, and Owen, then 2. One day I walked past and noticed the pictures, but I hardly recognized the children in them. Owen’s long, slender nose was still undefined, and his cheeks were full of baby fat. Ford’s front teeth — still not the adult ones — were small, almost forgettable compared with his big brown eyes and head. He had chubby cheeks, too.

I stared at those pictures for a long time, my reflection in the glass casting a shadow over their baby faces. My face, with its lines and shape, was still the same. But these children! Well, I had to think hard to remember how they were. What were their voices like? How did they laugh? What did their hands feel like in mine?

I know that parents dread the day their children leave home. And I know parents grieve during the first few years of an empty nest. Yet I’ve found that through all the years beforehand, children are leaving their parents one imperceptible moment at a time. There is constant grieving.

My 4-year-old Owen, that timid toddler whose hair always stuck up, lives only in my memory and old photographs now. He’s been replaced by a talkative boy with a sharp nose and a keen sense of humor. And the way that the padding of Lindell’s diaper felt when he was sitting on my hip in his denim overalls — it too vanishes from mind like a dream you can just barely remember after you’ve woken up.

All those moments are stored in the backs of picture frames, one after the other, safe behind a plate of glass.

But in that vertical frame with three openings, there has never been a picture of Lindell. I knew this needed attention. So I hired a photographer to take pictures of the boys, and I ordered one of each of them to fill the frame.

The day the prints arrived, I took the frame off the wall, turned it over on the kitchen table and unfastened the backing. Unlike other frames that are suitable for storing past photos, this frame, because of its design, would not. The old pictures of Ford and Owen were fastened to the matte with tape. They would have to come out and be stored elsewhere.

With the matte and images facedown, I could see the silhouette of my babies’ faces through the backside of the paper. With each tender tug of the tape, I second-guessed my decision. Was I ready to have those smiles stored away?

Once I had safely removed the photographs, I looked up and realized that the 4-year-old picture of Ford and 10-year-old picture of Ford were side-by-side on the table. It took me a few moments to get past that. Then I carried the old pictures of Ford and Owen upstairs and searched for a place to store them. I decided to put them in the back of another frame.

Eventually, I had three new photographs mounted in the frame. I hung it on the wall and was pleased. The fame very much represents my life today: Ford, Owen and Lindell. My three boys, as I know them now, are smiling at me when I walk in the front door.

Except, someday, even those photographs will seem old, the images young and hard to remember.

I dread that.

Maine author and columnist Sarah Smiley’s writing is syndicated weekly to publications across the country. She and her husband, Dustin, live with their three sons in Bangor. Her book, “I’m Just Saying …”, is available wherever books are sold. She may be reached at sarah@sarahsmiley.com.

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