If you looked at my phone right now, you’d see I currently have 26,598 photos in my cloud. That’s…a lot of pictures. Not all of them are important; in fact, many of them are ordinary, haphazard moments I felt compelled to capture for reasons that only make sense in my brain.
Why do I keep so many of these generally unremarkable moments in the palm of my hand?
Because I know what it’s like to lose them.
Like many moms, I often find myself sucked into a Photo Rabbit Hole late at night, sifting through the funny facial expressions and playground adventures and snuggle time selfies that make up my child’s life. Do I expect her to someday pore over tens of thousands of photos of our life together, soaking up every detail like her mom does? No. But I’m going to keep every last one of them just the same.
I have my reasons.
Seven months ago, my family’s world turned upside down when my sweet, beloved grandma suffered a severe stroke. Recently, I found myself desperately compiling every single picture I have of her on my phone.
The first time she held her first great-grandchild, and her son’s first grandchild — my newborn daughter. A snapshot of a ho-hum summer afternoon at Gigi’s where the quick click of my camera button captured a palpable joy.
There’s a photo I snapped of her the night she drove to my house at 9 o’clock at night just to hold my sleeping infant in her arms, because she’d been sick and screaming all day and my husband was working late. My grandma doesn’t drive at night, but she knew we needed her even if I couldn’t bring myself to ask for help. It was an exhausting, emotional night but I snapped a photo of her holding my child because I knew it was a moment worth remembering.
As a kid, I used to love pulling out boxes of old photos from under my parents’ bed and looking at the evidence that they functioned as two individual people before I existed. I was particularly fascinated by my own baby pictures; they were full of kisses and hugs and smiles that served as proof I was loved for those moments in time.
During rainy days throughout my childhood, I would spend hours spreading out each photo on the floor of my parents’ bedroom. Before we could keep 26,598 photos on a digital device at our fingertips, we kept boxes and bins and drawers full of these moments instead. I think I got to know myself and my family on a deeper level during those rainy afternoons.
My parents’ eventual divorce wasn’t the typical level of tumultuous. For my sister and me, it led to the culmination of trauma so intense that even a decade and a half later, the echoes of maternal abuse and abandonment haunt the deepest recesses of my unconscious mind. My mother moved out and away and took two lifetimes of photos with her into her new life — one where we didn’t fit but our memories did.
Since then, the only family photos I’ve been able to scrape together are from my grandma’s collections. In them, I haven’t found much of myself in those boxes. But I’ve found her. I’ve found the love story of my grandparents. The non-smiling faces of my great-grandparents and the crooked grins of my cousins. I’ve engaged in hours of kitchen table conversations with my grandma — stories of war and loss and motherhood over a cup of peppermint tea on a Sunday afternoon.
(Or a glass of wine. Shhh, grandma said it was fine.)
I lost my mother, but I found my grandma.
Since her stroke in January, a lot has changed. Too much has changed. So much, in fact, that the words bubble up inside my chest and come out as tears or anger instead. Watching someone you love lose every last bit of their dignity and warm familiarity of a fulfilling life is the most acute heartbreak I’ve ever felt.
My husband sometimes teases me for keeping an absurd number of photos because so many of them are quick, awkward snapshots of everyday moments. Many of them are screenshots or memes used solely for funny group texts to family and friends. Many of them are completely pointless and thoroughly embarrassing examples of how my brain works and I would surely die if anyone other than me saw them.
But when my parents divorced and my mother decided she wasn’t suited for life as a mother anymore, 21 years after becoming one, all of our family photos were part of a custody battle my dad, sister, and I didn’t win. I lost decades of these everyday moments as a result. This is why I spend so much time taking and looking through my own photos now; I need to remember these tiny slivers of time.
Because I do know what it’s like to lose them. To wonder if you really did have those happy, carefree moments, because some days when you’re feeling a grief so consuming it paralyzes you, it’s impossible to know if you did.
During those “rabbit hole” moments when I’m looking through my own collection of photos — from the makeup-free selfies moms everywhere have in abundance, to those simple photos of my daughter and I enjoying a summer afternoon at my grandma’s house — I’m so happy I’ve held onto all 26,598 of them.
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