The Persistence of Memory

Today is my birthday. For me this isn't a day it's not a day I usually celebrate; its a bittersweet anniversary that fills me with thoughts of mortality. I suppose that the older we get, the more likely we are to respond to making another trip around the Sun by wondering how many trips we have left. But that's not where my mind is at.

For those who don't know, I grew up on a farm in the Florida Panhandle surrounded by my mother's side of the family. Until I was eight, I lived across from my grandparents, and the summer after third grade we moved to a new house on the back part of the farm where my mother's two siblings lived with their families. There were eventually five of my generation, and as an only child I loved having cousins so nearby.

When I was born, I replaced Jeff as the youngest in the family. He was eight years older than me, but his birthday was the day before mine. Naturally we celebrated together every year. It occurs to me as I write this that I never apologized to him for taking away his birthday. See, six years later I was no longer the youngest - Amy came along two days after my birthday, and then there were three cousins celebrating one big party every year. Jeff was the only one of us who ever knew what it was like to have a birthday that was just about him.

Anyway, fast forward to when we were all adults. A few years ago, my family lost Jeff, tragically and suddenly. He had children of his own, a beautiful wife, a life that he'd worked hard to build. He had been one of my first friends, and was always one of my fiercest protectors. He died in April, and suddenly May seemed too painful to consider. That first year, my family insisted that Amy and I celebrate our birthday. We decided twenty minutes into that party that we probably wouldn't be having any more.

As someone who's lived more than a third of a century (doesn't that sound better than saying I'm in my late 30s?) I've lost more than a few people who were dear to me. I was very lucky in that all four of my grandparents lived to an old age, and beyond the hope that gives me for my draw in the genetic lottery it means I was able to know them all well. But despite losing them, close friends, an uncle who meant the world to me - Jeff is the loss that hurts the most, and it doesn't make sense to celebrate my birthday without him.

What does any of this have to do with photography, or the Dali painting that inspired the title of this post? Memory is a funny thing. No matter how much we trust our own memories, they have a way of letting us down. My maternal grandfather, on whose farm I grew up, was the single strongest influence in my life beside my parents for almost two decades. I can still hear his voice, remember his lessons, and sometimes I can still smell my cologne. But sometimes I have to really think hard to remember what he looked like. That's because when we try to remember faces we haven't seen in a while, our brain usually just gives us parts and not the whole. I can remember the twinkle in his eye or his smile, absolutely. But I don't remember what his nose looked like. Isn't it funny, that my brain can't put together a whole face because it can't remember the nose?

This is why I believe so strongly in photography as a force for retaining family history. Because as I sit here looking through my family album, I see Papa's face. I see Jeff smiling with his kids on his last Easter morning. I see past generations I never knew, and they're real to me. Beyond memento mori, photographs can be triggers. I don't have my grandmother's chocolate cake recipe written down, but I just need to see the photos my mom took of baby me with batter all over my face to remember how to make it.

Two millenia ago, the Roman historian Cicero wrote, "The life of the dead is placed on the memories of the living. The love you gave in life keeps people alive beyond their time. Anyone who was given love will always live on in another's heart." The ancient Egyptians believed that nobody was dead until their name is forgotten. I'm comforted by the thought that as long as someone is held alive in our memory, they are never truly gone. And I am grateful that I can work in an industry dedicated to keeping memory alive.

Jeff and I in the late 80s. We weren't so fuzzy originally, but the photo has been scanned and reprinted several times.

Happy birthday, Jeff. I love you and I miss you, but most importantly, I remember you.

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