A long time ago, before he realized he should value his life more, my husband asked me, “Why are you always taking pictures? Why can’t you just put the camera down and be IN the moment?” And, then, I punched him in the throat and he never asked a dumb question again. The End. Just kidding.
He actually asked a really good question. At the time, we were in our early 20s, just starting our life together and, “because I like to and because I want to” was the only way I knew how to answer it. Because taking them is something I was pulled to do on, what felt like, a cellular level, I just couldn’t articulate it any better than that. But, over the years, with a little bit of time under my belt and a little bit of a life lived (oh, hey, 40! I see you headed my way!), the answer to his question has become much more nuanced. Now, I could go on and on (and on and on) about how I take them because I love capturing my two children in various stages of their lives and how being a mother has made me appreciate taking pictures so much more, and that’s all very, very true. BUT, as much as I love those little monkeys, capturing their lives isn’t really the root of why I am always taking pictures. It’s just another symptom. In fact, the time when I’m most aware of the truest answer to this question is when I’m in the kitchen all by myself, reading my grandmother’s recipe books. That’s when I feel the answer so strongly, it’s undeniable. It’s because, when I’m spending those quiet moments in the kitchen, reading those recipes, I’m doing something that brings back memories that I don’t have any photographs of at all. Not one. When I haul those books out (usually, because I’m planning to make a proper, gut-busting Sunday Supper for my family), and I leaf through those impossibly brittle pieces of paper, running my hands over the scrawl of her hand-written words, I long for a picture to look back upon. A stolen moment, a snapshot of time, a visual reminder to tell the story of these recipes and what they meant to my family and to my childhood. These books contain hundreds and hundreds of hand-written recipes, complete with notes (“3/4 cup of water is enough,” “Sonny loved this,” “NOT GOOD! DO NOT MAKE AGAIN!”). The pages bear the stains of food, of tears, of time. But the memories they contain? Those are countless and, because there are no pictures to accompany them, they become more and more difficult to pass down to my own children.
It’s not just the recipes, though, not really, anyway. It’s what they remind me of. They’re a delicate, yellowed whisper of a reminder that you never know when the last time you do something is going to be the last time you get to do it. Trust me, if I had known that the last time I had supper at my grandmother’s house was going to be the last time, I would have gone one more time. If I’d have known that, when I went off to college and felt like I had out-grown/was just too cool/was way too busy for weekly visits to my grandparents’ house (how STUPID I was to have thought that!), that my grandmother would fall and break her hip so badly that the surgery left her unable to stand for long periods of time and then, over the years, break her same hip a 2nd time, requiring another hip replacement and THEN even more surgeries to replace the replacement hips thanks to her brittle bones and osteoporosis, or known that my grandfather would be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and pass away a few years later, you can bet your sweet ass I’d have been at her house before that first fall, enjoying one more home cooked meal with her (hoping and praying it was her fried chicken and collard greens), watching my grandfather come in and out of the kitchen, greasy and dirty with the sweat of a hard-worked day. Listening to the noise of the pots and the pans, lingering on the divine smells that wafted through the kitchen, hanging onto the wonderful and oh, so weird way my grandmother had entire conversations with herself as she cooked, as if no one at all was around (this appears to be a family trait). And, I’d have taken pictures. I had no idea that the last time I was going to have supper at her house was going to be the LAST TIME I’d eat there. I would have caught every memory I could catch on film so I could keep it with me forever. I would have given myself a visual road map to go along with these recipes. A snapshot of my grandmother’s curved back as she worked over the stove. A picture of my grandfather’s impish grin as he passed through the kitchen, on his way to the sink to wash his hands with the roughest soap I have ever used in my life (Lava soap = gift from Satan). The look of pure joy on my grandmother’s face when she watched how much everyone enjoyed the food that she’d cooked. The gift of freezing a moment in time before it’s the last time, before everything changes, is a priceless thing to be able to do. Those are the pictures I didn’t take and those are the ones that I wish I had.
That right there, friend, is my answer. It’s the answer for me. I will never be able to predict when the last time is going to be the last time. I certainly can’t take a picture of every single moment in time. It’s an impossible thing to do. But, when he asked that question and when he asked why I couldn’t just be IN the moment, he couldn’t possibly have realized how IN THE MOMENT I am when I’m looking through the camera. I see everything. I see the wind, I see the light, I see the people off to the side, I see the bird flying through my frame. I see the joy on faces, I see the laughter, the smiles, the tears, the emotions. I see the moment because I am in the moment, and I want it to last for a lifetime. Because it might be the last time, and I’m going to freeze it forever.