The Power of Family Photos: a case study in “remembering to remember.”
In my first conversation with Rachel, co-founder of Save Family Photos, she told me, “I truly believe photos are memory triggers; they help us remember to remember.” Though she’s probably said it a thousand times, it struck me deeply.
I recently started a personal history business, in which I interview people about their lives and then use their words – and images – to craft books for them and their families. For a sample project, I asked my dad to talk with me.
For years, I’ve recognized his story — and, really, our family’s story — as kind of being divided into two sections: “Before the Bankruptcy” and “After.”
The emphasis, for more than 20 years now, has been on the “After.” In the early 1990s, my parents’ restaurant business failed. I was 14 years-old, and the fallout was significant. We lost our house. My dad went to work in a convenience store. He no longer drove a new Buick, but a late 1970s Camaro bought from a guy named “Fast Eddie.” (Fast Eddie is notable not only for his nickname, but for being the only person I’ve ever known who “restored” cars using a can of house paint and a brush.)
It was confusing and disorienting, and generally not easy. But there are worse fates to befall a family, and none of the hardships would undo the good I’d absorbed from my parents’ time as business owners. For instance, on weekend mornings my dad would bring me to the restaurant to help him prep for the night ahead. I grumbled about it plenty, but it was time that many kids don’t get with a parent. Plus, it didn’t take much to see that all those hours peeling shrimp and restocking sodas had helped build my work ethic.
But it had been a long time since I’d heard my dad talk about the restaurant positively. In fact, less than 15 minutes into our first personal history interview, apropos of nothing, he referenced his memory of breaking the bankruptcy news to my sister and me.
It was half confession, half self-flagellation, and it happened multiple times. Meanwhile, when it came to the late 1980s success that my family had enjoyed, I had to coax him into talking.
Which is why I was so thankful when my mom sent me this photo…
To me, this photograph says so much. Here’s a guy with no college degree, no formal training beyond bartending school, and he’s supporting a young family with 13 tables and a three-person bar. What’s more, he’s loving it. (I mean, that stance!) The snapshot would be essential not only for his book, but also for a page of my website.
With a son of my own, I understand why my dad still wrestles with the memory of breaking bad news to his kids, and why he’s allowed the experience of declaring bankruptcy to at least partially define him. So I’m happy that in his book, we’ll preserve the details and richness of other chapters in our family story. I’m even more happy that during our interviews, he was able to remember some of the little victories and joys of those times.
And I’m really happy that this particular photo exists. I’m not sure what crosses my dad’s mind when he sees it, but for me, the memories it triggers are those of growing up with parents who went after their dream and lived it. That’s not only something worth remembering, but something to aspire to.
About the Author: After 10 years at the Colorado Springs Independent newspaper, Kirk Woundy launched Time Capsule Memoirs. His goal is to use the best aspects of good feature writing — thoughtful interviewing, skillful information-gathering and above all, evocative storytelling — to help individuals and families preserve their stories in formats that are unique and enduring.