James asked me about looking through old family photos as a kid with my mum and dad. An idyllic scene but I don’t recall either of them being especially bothered about family history. They never even had their wedding photo framed and displayed like other friends’ parents. I never asked why. Maybe there’s no story. Maybe it was just because Mum never liked pictures of herself. There were a couple in the old scrapbooks, but I suppose being on display every day was not her cup of tea. Come to think of it, I’m not sure if we have a wedding picture on show any more. Still buried after the last house move…
Apart from the blue-backdrop school mug-shots in brown card that accumulated in nooks there were no other family photos on view apart from one of my uncle Michael when he became a barrister, also in brown card. But at the front of the scrapbooks were The Old Photographs. The first image that popped into my head was the man with the washing line through his ears and his eek expression. I think two other people were holding the line at either end. That was comic genius to me. Someone was called Jeff or Geoff – he may have been the joker. Or it might have actually been my dad. My memory is out-of-focus.
There were a few daft pictures in what I believed was Nan and Grandad’s garden (so pre-wedding era) of Mum and Dad and a few chums larking about. Everyone peeking out from behind one another worthy of an MGM musical billboard. And someone, possibly that Jeff, laying across everyone’s arms as if he were the lead showgirl in the finale. This lot knew how to stage a photo. And of course they all looked so cool in their 1950s gear.
There was a fuzzy picture of Dad and some pals dressed as angels, sheet-wrapped, tinsel haloes, trying to look divine with clasped hands and eyes raised to heaven. There was nothing about this picture that suggested angelic behaviour – they looked like naughty little boys caught with their fingers in the trifle, more likely a barrel of beer. Mum once said Dad used to write and perform rude pantomimes with and for his mates. I’m guessing it was one of those larks. I’d love to find a script.
I found a crispy brown envelope of even older pictures in Mum’s flat when she moved into the care home, pictures neither my brother or I had ever seen before. We guessed she had ended up with them after clearing out her own parents’ house about 30 years earlier. In the fluster of the move they were put somewhere ‘safe’ – only to be remembered years later when we were gathering photos for a memory board at her funeral.
My cousin Allie and I have been wanting to get together with all the old photos we can gather and ask her mum, my Auntie Kay, if she can remember who these people were. Over three years on, we’ve not yet managed it. I did give Allie a lovely picture of her mum I’d found of her graduating high school from when they were living in America. Now Kay hates having her picture taken so much that in even in her own daughter’s wedding photos she is looking at her feet so all you can see is hair. Allie showed me, I laughed. She didn’t.
In Mum’s house before The Fall she had Grandad’s baby grand piano covered in framed pictures. All silver frames, apart from the ones I’d bought that looked like they were made from jelly beans or a floorboard. I can’t remember when she started this, I think one was a silver wedding present so maybe it grew from there. They were all family photos, mostly of us and our kids, but there were a couple of older classics. There was The Boat picture. This was a shot of Grandad, Nan, Mum aged about 20 and her younger brothers and sister ranging down in age and size to three year old Mikey, all on a staircase on the boat to New York, their new home. They came back a couple of years later, back to beloved red double-decker buses and marmite on toast – but no Elvis. Yet.
This wonderful picture was on Nan and Grandad’s sideboard throughout my childhood and when Nan died, someone made a copy for each sibling. Now all their grandchildren probably have a copy lurking on their computer files. Dammit – why haven’t I got it on my sideboard? Apart from the fact I don’t have a sideboard… you know what I mean.
The other piano classic I must chase up is of my dad and his two older brothers as young scamps, licked and brushed up for the photo. My sister-in-law once described it as ‘Three little Peter Cushings’. Dad was often compared to Peter Cushing or, as one of my friends said of another picture ‘Oh look there’s Richard Chamberlain pretending to be your dad.’ Mum referred to her own childhood photos as looking like stupid great football. We didn’t have any evidence to back this up. We had no notions of Mum as a child, just stories of her repeatedly getting her head stuck in railings.
When I opened that crispy brown envelope, I found pictures of this funny kid with a football-round bob hairdo, pulling faces just like my kids did. Unmistakably Mum. Wow – my mum was actually a kid once! Nan looked glamorous in every shot and Grandad very dapper, both in a smart hat if they were out and about. There was one of them with Mum in the pushchair and the writing on the back referred to her as ‘Madam’. This really made me laugh. That’s what I’d call my daughter when she was little. And it how she now refers to her boyfriend.
Sadly most of these old pictures were persons unknown, presumably a part of our family’s history but never introduced to us. I wonder if my kids will wonder the same thing one day, shuffling through wads of nameless faces currently lurking in damp shoeboxes somewhere. I doubt any of them would have the same charm as these old black and white shots, when everyone looked so crisp and purposeful. Ours will be awkward red-eyed chums perched on a beige bedspread or sun-bleached drunken flops. That unkind era between the solid looky-downy box camera like my dad’s and the modern digital phone we have now is where my youth and early adulthood is trapped. The age of naff cameras, send-away prints, hideous clothes and drab furnishings begat terrible, terrible photographs. Many of them long-since ripped up. It must be a family trait not liking photos of ourselves, or maybe a learned behaviour. Hmmn. I realise I must organise all my pictures into a joyful display and hope I haven’t passed on this curse.
Crispy envelopes and damp shoeboxes are one thing, digital pictures languishing in a computer file are somehow more lost. You’re even less likely to notice them when you’re swapping the electric fan for the electric blanket up in the loft and lose an hour peeking through them. I don’t keep a mental picture of what might be hidden in a digital file, it’s completely invisible to me. As a hopeless technophobe, they are someone else’s responsibility. Every now and then my technoclever husband calls me over to the screen and shows me a forgotten jamboree of our little fizzers and we fizz about getting some of them framed.
I may not have a grand piano or a sideboard but our walls can take a few more, and while I’m at it I must get the stair-rail emmigres and the three little Peter Cushings up there too. And maybe some wedding pictures. And make some flipping scrapbooks – if I say scrapbooks instead of albums maybe it’ll seem less daunting, maybe we can print up a batch of funnies to glue into a flick-throughable trove, not just cherry-pick the frame-worthy. I hope it’s not too late to giggle through them with my now big kids and introduce them to some old friends. Maybe they’ll be inspired to make their own. I feel a summer project brewing.