Every year, when she was a kid, Ceci Ross Lee housesat for the same family. And every year, she was struck by a series of photographs they took, always two new ones: a picture for each child’s birthday. On the kids’ birthdays, the parents would line them up in front of the same tree in the yard with the dogs and snap a photo. She says, “The kids would change and the dogs would change. I always remember — one year they got a puppy.” These so-called “touchstone photos,” she says, have always “meant so much” to her.
And we’ve all seen them. Famously, photographer Nicholas Nixon, in 1976, asked his wife’s sisters if he could take their picture on a whim, reports The New York Times. Like most touchstone photos, this one happened by accident: he took another picture of them the next year at one of the sister’s graduations, and suggested they line up in the same order. He took their picture, in the same order, for the next thirty-eight years. The results were on view in the Museum of Modern Art in November of 2014.
Ross Lee’s own touchstone photo started by accident. Her younger daughter Rosie was born via C-section, and they hadn’t known if she would be a boy or a girl. It was a scheduled C-section, so they knew when their baby was going to be born. Ross Lee’s mother, affectionately known as Wumsy (side note: best grandmother name ever), stayed with her and the baby while her husband, T.J., went to pick up Maggie, aged 3 ½, from preschool. He told her that she had a sister.
She was so excited, Ross Lee says. “I have a SISTER!” she yelled. They brought her right to the hospital to meet baby Rosie, and captured the stereotypical big sister newborn photograph: Maggie holding baby Rosie with that “Oh my god, this thing is mine and I don’t quite know what to do with it,” look on her face, as Ross Lee calls it, “that all big sisters get,” and Maggie wrapped up “like a burrito.”
“But she was so excited,” Ross Lee says. “My mom had to bring her to the hospital like, five times a day” to see her new sister.
The photos started, like all good touchstone photos do, by accident. On Rosie’s second birthday, the girls insisted on taking a special birthday photograph. By that time, Maggie was 5 ½ years old and knew what she wanted. So Ross Lee obligingly snapped one. When she put it up on Facebook, she was amazed at how much the new photo resembled the one she’d taken the day Rosie was born.
Hence the tradition of touchstone photos began.
Every year since, Ross Lee has taken a picture of her girls in the same position. “I joke that I’m going to make them do it when they are 30,” she swears. “It’s been so much fun as their sizes change, as you see Rosie become less of a baby and closer to Maggie’s size.” Maggie is now 7 ½; Rosie just turned 4. Ross Lee was bedridden with pneumonia this year, with Wumsy there to pinch-hit, but she drug herself out of bed to snap that all-important touchstone photo. “
Ross Lee says she loves these touchstone photographs — “they’re so cute.” But they’re more important than that.
Even though it’s Rosie’s birthday, Ross Lee says, every year, “We talk about how it’s the day Maggie became a big sister, and that’s important, too.” This not only includes her sister in the celebration, but says something profound about family and familial ties: something that has always been important in Ross Lee’s family. These touchstone photos, she explains, do more than just capture two sisters in a silly position. It “captures their relationship: they’re getting bigger and are still sisters. Getting bigger and their relationship and their dynamic changes, and their relationship changes. The size difference changes.” One day, she says, “They’ll be two teenagers and that will be the best.”
And her family isn’t the only one who has caught on to the sentimental hilarity that recreated childhood photos bring. In fact, the internet is swimming with these amazing photos.
Some of them are just downright…bizarre. Adorable and hilarious, yes. But also bizarre.
For Ross Lee, these photos aren’t just sweet and fun; they also mark the passage of time. “I look at the pictures of Maggie’s baby face in those pictures and it’s hard to realize she was younger than Rosie is now in that picture.” we talked a lot about how hard to think about your youngest turning the same age your oldest once was: back then, your big kid seemed so big, and now your youngest still seems so little.
Many people make growth charts on the wall, but they’re lost when you move — I know ours was. But the photos abide. You can take them out and look at them, compare and laugh, feel nostalgia and sadness and happiness all at once. A good feeling. I’m sure there’s a word for it. But whatever it is, it’s beautiful, a way to capture the slow march of time without lamenting its ravages. To watch your babies grow up in sweetness, rather than sadness.