Getting To Know My Children—And Myself—By Making A Photo Album

by Kathleen Thometz
Originally Published: 

Imagine going with all of your children and grandchildren on a 12-day Mexican vacation that you can’t remember. That is what my mom is experiencing. I have created three such photo books in the last year. One is of the vacation, another is of her children and grandchildren, and this last one has been a chronology of her life. Interestingly, my brother, with whom my mother lives, gave me one direction, “Make sure she looks good in the photo. She always comments on that.”

That has been a difficult task. My mother has not always been the happiest person, and that is indicated in many of the photos of her. Not only has it been difficult to tear faded photos from their albums to scan, there are not nearly as many to choose from as I thought. On top of that, I need to find ones of her with lipstick on, her hair done and a smile on her face.

This task has grown herculean because I have chosen to fill folders with images of each of my children and images of my husband and his parents for future books. When you look through albums of your children, you find that the progression from childhood to adulthood is not that striking. But when you pull, say, 20 photos of each child from birth onward and put them across five pages in a book, the result is nothing short of shocking. You actually capture the soul of that child in five pages.

I got tears in my eyes when I looked at my happy-go-lucky oldest son, always goofing off in his photos, now a serious young man leaving home for the first time. My husband and I worried most about this child. We worried about him being successful in school. We desperately wanted him to get more serious about life, but we missed the point. This sweet, fun-loving kid was going to venture into adulthood and be fine, without having to change, without our diligent hovering. I believe that our lack of faith in him and the growing-up process caused him to lose some of what we loved most about him. I wished we’d spent more time accepting and enjoying him than trying to change him.

© Courtesy Kathleen Thometz

My smart, beautiful, athletic, confident, even-tempered daughter shines in each photo. Even in the pictures after she donated her hair in second grade—she remained stoic until the job was done and then broke down. She sobbed while I carried her from the hair salon to the nearest boutique to get accessories for her very short cut. In all of her other photos, she is happy and self-assured. She is the girl who so badly wants a horse that you can see her resolve when riding on the circus pony at 3 years old. It’s there when she’s showing on a stallion at 16 and when choosing a college where they have five horse-related sports teams on campus. Looking back, I wish that I didn’t rely on that self-sufficiency so much. I wish I had sought her out more and been more available. I wish I had gotten to know her better.

My sensitive third child’s photos break my heart, every one of them. He is the child who sees things that others don’t, who experiences everything down to his toes. He is a smart, capable and dryly funny child who is needy at the same time. He always wanted me to do something for him. I now believe that was to get me to prove my love. This has always caused me consternation. I was always saying, “I love you! Why do you need me to make your lunch?” He has been the odd man out often in the family and in the world. I think now, how hard would it have been for me to do those things he asked of me, that he was capable of doing? Those deeds would’ve made him feel loved. Thankfully, I still have some time to correct this.

My youngest, delightful, silly boy makes me laugh in every photo. He is the typical, adored last child. You can see it in every charming, smiling photo. He is the kid I watch TV shows with instead of making him go to school on time, the one whose lunch I put a liter of Coke in on his last day of school. He is a child full of love for our dogs, his sister and his brothers. What I didn’t know while raising his siblings, I now know with him: Just let him be.

Compiling these photos has made me realize that I have not always done a good job. I have not always given my kids what they need. Looking back, I could have practiced a little more acceptance of my oldest son, a little more coddling and attention to my independent daughter, and a lot more love and understanding for my third. The three oldest are always telling me I should give a little more guidance and discipline to my last. But what I know from experience is if I just love and accept and enjoy him, he’ll turn out just fine.

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